Drama Pulitzer gets critics worked up

Overlooked in the announcements of the Pulitzer Prize yesterday was a small notice in the drama citation. Here’s the official wording, with boldface ended for emphasis:

For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Awarded to Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals. (Moved into contention by the Board within the Drama category.)

Finalists

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.

And here’s what it means: The Pulitzer board (a group made up mostly of journalists from New York and around the country) decided to pass over the three finalists suggested by the Pulitzer drama jury (a group of critics and theater people) and to choose something else completely to win.

So the board put aside three relatively obscure non-musical plays and instead chose Next to Normal, a musical that has been playing on Broadway for a year.

I am a big fan of Next to Normal. But I, like many other critics and probably a lot of other theater people, am taken aback by the Pulitzer board’s willingness to ignore the people with theater experience and instead rely on their own tastes.

This rarely or never happens in the other arts categories. But in drama it happens fairly often: The last time was with Rabbit Hole, in 2007, and the year before that the Pulitzer board threw out the jury’s recommendations and didn’t award a drama prize at all.

I suspect a lot of the issue this year was simply that the board had never seen the three finalists but had seen Next to Normal. You go with what you know.

For what it’s worth, I’ve read one of the three finalists, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, for a playwriting competition I help to judge. It’s a terrific script — funny, pointed and quirky as hell.

LA Times critic Charles McNulty, who was the head of the drama jury this year, is pretty pissed. Here’s his column telling why.

One response to “Drama Pulitzer gets critics worked up

  1. Wm. F. Hirschman

    I second all that Betsey and Charles McNulty said. I was in awe of “Next to Normal,” but I certainlyendorse the analysis citing the coronation factor. I, too, read “Chad Deity” as part of the recent ATCA/Steinberg Award process and while I know it has flaws and I wholeheartedly support the eventual selection of “Equivocation,” I was gobsmacked by “Chad Deity’s” originality, its voice, its concept and its potential in execution. I read it on a plane and kept grinning and making moans of appreciation to the surprise of my fellow travellers and my wife. Maybe it was not worthy of the Pultizer; that’s another day’s discussion. But I can’t help but think that this is about Manhattan-itis. This is why my committee and I work so hard and believe so deeply in the ATCA/Steinberg Award because excellence in playwriting and new play production is no longer limited to the five boroughs of New York City — except in their minds.