In selecting Next to Normal, the musical about a family dealing with mental illness which received its second chance at Arena Stage, to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Pulitzer Board rejected the advice of its own jury,
Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty revealed on Tuesday.
McNulty, who chaired the Pulitzer jury for drama selections, said that it had recommended three plays to the Board: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, and Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. None of these plays could find majority support from the Board in an afternoon vote. After reviewing a favorable description of Next to Normal in the jury’s notes, the Board saw a production of the musical in New York that evening and subsequently gave it the prize.
McNulty was careful not to suggest that Next to Normal was a bad choice. “’Next to Normal’…deserves a second wind at the box office, just as it should have won the Tony for best musical over its commercial competition,” McNulty observed. Nonetheless, by awarding the Pulitzer after seeing Next to Normal in production, the Pulitzer board gave an unfair advantage to a production which was playing in New York at the time. “Does anyone really believe that “Next to Normal” would have been chosen had it been submitted when it was at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.?” McNulty asked.
McNulty also castigated the Pulitzer Board for its “failure to appreciate new directions in playwriting.” “[The jury-recommended] works represent the new guard of American playwriting.” McNulty argued. “And their authors — diverse in background and courageous in style — are discovering fresh ways of connecting politics and poetry onstage. They take their place with writers such as Christopher Shinn, Will Eno, Young Jean Lee and Tarell Alvin McCraney, to name just a few of those contemporary dramatists who care about theater as an art rather than as an expensive diversion.”
Fellow Pulitzer juror David Rooney, former chief critic for Variety, also took issue with the Board’s decision to ignore the jury’s recommendations. The fact that the Board could, and did, see Next to Normal gave it an unfair advantage against the jury-nominated plays, which the Board could only read, Rooney argued.
“Any of us who cover theatre know that the nature of theatre itself is that you are there, you are experiencing it, you have a direct emotional impact.” Rooney said. “Whatever they’re seeing physically represented on a stage in front of them has a greater emotional impact than something they’re reading on the page. Seeing it on the stage [is seeing it] in its intended form. Aside from the people on the board who saw the Sarah Ruhl play during its Broadway run, or perhaps who saw the Chicago or L.A. productions of the other two short-listed titles, no one is experiencing the play fully as it was intended. So, Next to Normal already has a huge advantage there.”
Rooney’s remarks appeared in an article in Playbill.com by Adam Hetrick. Several other theater critics not on the jury expressed cynicism about the Pulitzer selection process. New York Times critic Ben Brantley observed, “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.”
“For the record, I am a fan of ‘Next to Normal,’” Brantley said. “But the Pulitzer standard, by and large, seems to be that the play be like a painting you would feel comfortable having on your living room wall.”
As Brantley and other observers pointed out, the Pulitzer Board has frequently ignored the theater jury’s recommendations, most notoriously in refusing to award the Pulitzer to Edward Albee for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. On fifteen occasions, the Pulitzer Board has given no award for drama at all.
Rooney and McNulty were joined on the Pulitzer jury this year by Duke University drama professor John Clum, playwright Nilo Cruz, and Chicago Sun-Times theater and dance critic Hedy Weiss.