Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Awarded to "Next to Normal"

In a controversial decision, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been awarded to "Next to Normal," a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder and how she and her family struggle to deal with her illness. Tom Kitt wrote the music, while Brian Yorkey created the book and lyrics.

Both Kitt and Yorkey took home Tony Awards for their work on "Next to Normal." The show won 2009 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, awarded to Alice Ripley. "Next to Normal" was nominated for a total of 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Pulitzer Board deemed it to be, "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

Nominated as finalists in this category were “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” by Kristoffer Diaz, a play invoking the exaggerated role-playing of professional wrestling to explore themes from globalization to ethnic stereotyping, as the audience becomes both intimate insider and ringside spectator; “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” by Rajiv Joseph, a play about the chaotic Iraq war that uses a network of characters, including a caged tiger, to ponder violent, senseless death, blending social commentary with tragicomic mayhem; and “In the Next Room or the vibrator play,” by Sarah Ruhl, an inventive work that mixes comedy and drama as it examines the medical practice of a 19th century American doctor and confronts questions of female sexuality and emancipation.

The controversy arose because "Next to Normal" was not nominated by the jury who chose the three nominees listed above. In fact, the Pulitzer Board notes on its citation that "Next to Normal" was "moved into contention by the Board within the Drama category," and LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty, who was the chairman of the jury whose recommendations were overriden, has now written an editorial in his newspaper to express his displeasure with the Pulitzer Board for overridding its nominations and awarding the prize on "Next to Normal" instead.

McNulty is hopping mad, but New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, who himself chaired a Pulitzer jury whose recommendations were ignored (the Pulitzer Board chose David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" over Brantley's jury's less accessible nominations) is more sanguine. In his own piece about the brouhaha, Brantley notes: "Any annoyance I felt then was tempered by a weary awareness that the Pulitzers have usually gone to firmly middlebrow works, the majority of which are highly unlikely to blaze in the annals of posterity as daring innovators. They can be read as an index of solid bourgeois tastes over the years but not much more."

Last year's winner was "Ruined" by Lynn Notage, with Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" taking the prize in 2008.

"Next to Normal" becomes only the eighth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, after:

1) "Of Thee I Sing," with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, winner in 1932
2) "South Pacific," with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, winner in 1950
3) "Fiorello!" with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, winner in 1960
4) "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, winner in 1962
5) "A Chorus Line," with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Ed Kleban, and book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, winner in 1976
6) "Sunday in the Park with George," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, winner in 1985
7) "Rent," with music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson, winner in 1996.


  1. I've been reading some of the articles about this whole business, by both the disgruntled and the defensive, and there are two additional interesting elements (possibly mentioned in these articles):

    (1) The Board did attempt to vote on the three nominees, but none received the required majority vote. It was at this point that they moved to consider other possibilities.

    (2) I can't at the moment track the source for this, but the nominating jury apparently did mention "Next to Normal" in its statement, in an "also considered" context, though it did not in the end make it one of the nominees.

    Brantley's idea that the Pulitzers for drama represent "solid bourgeois tastes" is probably close to the truth, though as he notes the award did go appropriately to "Streetcar," "Long Day's Journey," and Part 1 of "Angels in America."

    The list of 8 musicals (as I mention in my course) are certainly an oddly assorted bunch, and good as they are nobody would say that they're the 8 best musicals dealing with American life. ("Fiorello" is largely, perhaps unjustly, forgotten, and "How To Succeed..." is fun but not really a prizewinner for the record books (even Loesser himself rolled his eyes about winning for that rather than "Guys and Dolls" or "The Most Happy Fella"). Still, it's always a matter of what's there to consider in a given year, and how the board feels about it.

  2. I think it was Brantley who also noted that our best playwrights (and artists, I suppose, if Sondheim or Hammerstein are not "playwrightsm" per se) have won the Pulitzer for drama, but often not for their best plays. Interesting and true...

    Or maybe we're all just making too much of the Pulitzer in general, and it really shouldn't be more than another "good for you if you get one/doesn't mean much if you don't" kind of kudo.

  3. Please forgive my typos and other issues while I am out of town and hobbled by other people's stuff and use of my Blackberry to do stuff for the most part. I believe Des calls those "tappos."

  4. That last is how I would always think of it anyway: so many worthy contenders have been overlooked in favor of what now looks like ephemera, I can't take it as an indicator of anything really significant, except that it's nice when it goes to someone good, even if for the wrong works.

    Look at the whole list of drama winners, I do see a few titles (beyond the 3 Brantley mentioned) that I have to trouble considering our very best: "Our Town," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "Death of a Salesman," "Picnic," "Talley's Folly," and it's probably too soon to talk bout the staying power of anything more recent.

    It's also interesting that, aside from perhaps 3 of the musicals, Drama in this case means Serious Drama. There aren't many (or any?) comedies on the list, though to me comedy can be as profound as anything. Even Neil Simon won it for his serious effort, "Lost in Yonkers." Some, certainly, do have their funny moments ("Angels in America" has plenty), but it's an interesting... what I would call prejudice.

  5. I am a bit overly excited by the Sarah Ruhl play...!

  6. "have NO trouble" in my last comment. Of course.