The Playgoer: Pulitzers: "Normal" or Abnormal?

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Pulitzers: "Normal" or Abnormal?

There may be no new news about the Next to Normal Pulitzer win, but there are still things to learn about it.

I still find the decision of the Pulitzer Board to overrule its own appointed expert jury's recommendations in favor of a show that only questionably even qualified...upsetting.  Sure, awards are silly to those who truly value art, as some have argued.  But to the rest of the world...they actually do still matter.

Especially, the Pulitzer Prize in drama matters.  Let's start with the $10,000 prize itself.  You don't get cash for a Tony.  And I see plenty of evidence that in the media coverage of theatre that the Pulitzer does indeed matter more than the Tony, making it the most prominent award a dramatist can win in this country.  Go ahead and google a playwright who has won both awards, like Mamet: note he is almost always identified as "Pulitzer Prize winning playwright", not "Tony Award winning playwright."  Same for Tony Kushner. In fact, I remember when ads started appearing for the HBO Angels in America, the tagline was: "based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play," even though it also won the Tony and nearly every other award imaginable. Maybe they thought "Tony-winning" would bring to mind flashy musicals?  That it would sound just

Probably because of the Pulitzers' other high-minded categories like literature, classical music, not to mention all those "civic" journalism citations that are its bread and butter...the Pulitzers denote a certain class that other prizes don't.  In the arts--short of a Kennedy Center lifetime achievement honor, maybe, or the MacArthur "genius" awards--they are our ultimate "legitimation."  Indeed, the halo of their "civic" obsession--typified the awards' own self-romanticized "fourth estate" heroism--washes off on the arts as well.  Thus the plays we associate most with the Pulitzer (from Death of a Salesman to Angels to the recent Doubt and last year's Ruined) tend to be "serious" plays of outward civic engagement.

So, long story short--one gets the sense with the Pulitzer art prizes, it's not about the art, really.  It's about bestowing a social honor on an artist that a big majority of the entire Pulitzer board of 17 newspaper execs, columnists, and non-arts professors can feel proud of.  While the board every year appoints an expert jury to adjudicate with their inside knowledge on what represents the best in their field, the jury's findings are treated merely as a "recommendation."  (Like some blue-ribbon policy panel in Washington.)  The ultimate award--especially in the case of drama--is not decided by experts in the field at all.  Again this year's board includes not only no theatre specialists, but no one evidently with any arts experience at all.  Of the total eighteen, eleven are basically executive editors and/or publishers of major news outlets. (Even the online DC gossip-rag Politico, for chrissakes) .  There are two professors, but one is from social sciences, the other from history. I'll grant that Columbia University President Lee Bolinger has a long history of arts patronage.  But that's the best I can do at finding arts expertise in that body.

No wonder, then, that, when it comes to theatre, such a body would be fatally biased toward only the most visible examples of the artform--those on display in New York City, especially on Broadway.  In other words, the (like much of the cultural cognoscenti of our land) our fatally stuck in 1955, when it comes to theatre.  (Just like art-lovers who still expect paintings to look like something from life, or music-lovers who wait for the tune.)

So the Pulitzer is a middlebrow award. What else is new.  The list of past winning plays certainly proves that's always been the case, even when the plays are good.

So why am I still upset?

First, there's the sheer arrogance of the Board, once again, brazenly overruling (i.e. ignoring) their own expert jury of respected critics and practitioners.  For the third time in recent years.  (Once to award Rabbit Hole, once to deny any award at all.)  Either the board believes it knows better about theatre.  OR--perhaps more unsettlingly--is determined to not let the experts go against what they feel is popular opinion.  Or, frankly, just their own personal tastes.

That this happened in the Next to Normal case is clear.  The jury recommended three plays: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph; In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl.  These are all works of a new generation of playwrights, who bend the old dramaturgy in different ways to allow for more free-association, magical realism, and linguistic unorthodoxy.  They also are more likely to breech the standards of "good taste" and decorum of earlier generations.  (I mean, can you imagine the vaulted Pulitzer going to a play with the word "vibrator" in the title?  My, what would the Board tell their grandchildren! or their newspaper subscribers...)

Of the three, In the Next Room should have had the best chance, by standard Pulitzer practice.  It was on Broadway, under the aegis of the prestigious Lincoln Center Theatre.  The playwright was one of the most lauded of her generation--including being one of those MacArthur "geniuses".  So what's not to like?

Well it didn't help that it had already closed.  And that it's Broadway run ended over the Christmas holidays when no one on the Board would have thought to see it--if the subject matter had not already turned them off.  The Board would have had the chance to read the play, but I wonder if on the page all the rampant orgasming

I haven't seen the other two finalists so can't discuss in detail what the Board might have found objectionable. (And I hope some of you can--please tell us!)  But some things I do notice about those plays by the way--their authors aren't MacArthur geniuses, their plays didn't run on Broadway, and their titles are just, you know, weird.

A majority vote of the entire Board is required to give any jury recommendation a seal of approval, and none of these three reportedly received those nine out of seventeen votes that would win it the prize.  (Again look at the board list and imagine any nine of them voting for any interesting new play that wasn't already a "hit.")
So what happens next?  The Board consulted the jury's complete list of apparently 70-odd first round finalists--basically all plays of note that opened in the 2009 calendar year.  One title stood out: Next to Normal.  Why?  Maybe some had already seen it (it had been playing on Broadway for almost a year).  Maybe some of the Board's DC contingent caught it at Arena Stage in the pre-Broadway (post off-Broadway) tryout of its revised edition.  Maybe some had heard about how much Bill and Hillary Clinton loved it after (coincidentally?) just seeing it on April 3, a week before the award. Or maybe some had just read this NY Times article on March 28 about a plucky little musical that could--because one thing these folks do is read newspapers, especially NYT.

I'm not implying anything nefarious here.  Probably just a really good marketing campaign by the Next to Normal pr team to lobby for that Pulitzer, once they realized they were in contention in what was basically an open field.

But should they have even been in contention?  Here's a question I haven't seen seriously addressed yet in the coverage of this.  Next to Normal first opened in New York--to little enthusiasm--at Second Stage theatre company in February 2008.  Yes, this was an Off Broadway run.  But Off Broadway has never been out of bounds for the Pulitzers before.  Last year's Ruined was only Off Broadway.  So was How I Learned to Drive, Wit, Dinner With Friends, Three Tall Women, Driving Miss Daisy, and even Buried Child when it won back in 1979.  No one was talking up Next to Normal as a Pulitzer finalist for 2008.

(At this point let's clarify that in 2007 the Pulitzers switched from considering a traditional Fall-Spring season to a calendar year.  So eligibility for this year's 2010 award meant opening between January and December 2009.  What the Pulitzer Board defines as "opening" and/or "premiere", though is a question I have not yet seen resolved in any reporting.  Anyone know?)

Now, as was their right to do, the Next to Normal creators decided to give the show another try, go back to the drawing board and revise the show with a future Broadway transfer in mind.  They unveiled the "new and improved" edition at Washington DC's Arena Stage later that year, opening there in November 2008, closing in January 2009.  Then, emboldened by the tryout, they open on Broadway on April 15, 2009.

Rightfully this put the show in Tony Award contention for the 2008-2009 season as a "new musical," since the Tonys only consider Broadway by charter.  But no one else in the theatre awards business considered this a brand new property in 2009.  I remember the Drama Desk, for instance, to which I belong, ruling it out for '08-'09 contention since it had already been considered the previous season.  (Drama Desk doesn't distinguish between Broadway and Off.) I don't care how much tinkering the creators did with the show--the Pulitzers basically gave them a very rare do-over opportunity.

I imagine many would kill to have such consideration.  And I imagine many of the truly 2009 contenders might feel a little cheated by that.  Especially for those not on Broadway and as far from it as LA and Chicago, as two of the jury finalists were.  I mean competition is tough enough with Broadway for recognition as it is.  But competing with last season's shows, too?

So to me this is something perhaps to be the most upset about--that Next to Normal would never have had a chance at the Pulitzer if it didn't re-open on Broadway.  Which sends totally the wrong message to the new dramatists of today.

Back to April 2010: So, with all this new publicity one year into its Broadway run, no wonder Next to Normal would have been one of the rare titles that rang a bell for this group out of a list of 100 current American plays that opened in 2009.  Whatever the reason, the Board mustered the three-quarters majority required to place another title in contention other than the jury recs.  In this case, that means at least 12 of the 17 Board members said to their own expert jury: thanks but no thanks, your expertise is irrelevant in this category, we'll take it from here.

Talk about "everyone's a critic"!

So what next?  A bunch of Board members hop in a cab and go see Next to Normal of course!  According to NYT's Patrick Healy:

on Thursday night [April 8], several members of the board – who were in New York for their final meetings – went to see “Next to Normal” on Broadway at the Booth Theater. Mr. Gissler declined to say how many of the 17 voting board members attended the show that night. A second person familiar with the board’s deliberations, but who spoke about internal board matters on condition of anonymity, said that “a lot of them” – referring to the board members – went to see “Next to Normal” that night.
One thing not mentioned here I'm curious about...did they pay for their own tickets?  If not, who did?

The next day, April 9, according to Healy, "the Pulitzer board took at least one vote on conferring the drama Pulitzer on 'Next to Normal,' and a majority voted in favor."  Again a majority here means at least nine of those seventeen Board members voted to overrule the jury with a play of which the jury chair himself says, "The musical's rock score may be generic and its understanding of mental illness simplistic."  Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Well at the very least this is a pretty fucked up and embarrassing situation for the nation's most prestigious arts awards to be in.  But then again, how fitting for a body that is literally stuck in about 1925.  I mean for starters--there is no Pulitzer film or screenplay award.  Why? Because when the awards were founded, the Board must have believed these "photoplays" were best used for peepshow nickelodeons. Many might argue today--in the age of Mad Men, Sopranos, and The Wire--that no body can pretend to celebrate what's best in American arts without recognizing fine television writing.  But don't expect the Pulitzers to catch on anytime soon.

Take music, too.  Since its inclusion in the awards in 1943, the Pulitzer music prize has been solely concerned with contemporary classical music.  The current citation reads simply "distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year." But as recently as 1996 it stipulated:
For distinguished musical composition by an American in any of the larger forms including chamber, orchestral, choral, opera, song, dance, or other forms of musical theatre, etc...
Yes, Wynton Marsalis once won, in 1997, but that was for his symphonic composition, Blood on the Fields.

So even now that Bob Dylan's lyrics have for years been published and studied as poetry, that the Beatles and Rolling Stones can be knighted by HRH The Queen...the Pulitzers still cannot expand their definition of "music" beyond Juilliard circa 1965.

What hope then for "theatre"?

Maybe if theatre is to advance into the 21st century, we're better off without these old fogies.


Esther said...

I wonder whether the Drama prize should be open to writing from movies and television. I mean, the photography prizes were added. Online journalism is eligible now. Maybe this is the next logical step.

Anonymous said...

Politico a "gossip rag" --??? Are you kidding? It's one of the most important investigative news organs, picking up a lot of the slack left by print journalism. Yes, you're right that all those news editors know little about drama. And you making it look like we theater writers can match them by not knowing anything about journalism. Don't embarrass us!

Dr. Cashmere said...

There are sometimes things at Politico worth reading. But PG is right that the thing is pretty much a gussied up gossip rag.

cgeye said...

Yep, gossip rag, despite the investigations it picks up.

And parts of your post are highlighted -- intentional?

And, a note from Peter Marks:

Playgoer said...

Couple of brief responses before I get around to more substantive follow-ups...

1) Sorry for the highlights. Spellcheck gone amok. Now fixed.

2) re: "Politico"--I like to think I'm not commenting out of complete ignorance on that. I do read Politico occasionally and follow political reporting quite closely. Closely enough to know Politico is considered controversially tabloid-like even amongst the DC press corps. So I'm not alone in that opinion.

Scott said...

Regarding music, this year the Pulitzer committee did award a posthumous Special Citation to Hank Williams, as they honored Bob Dylan two years ago (not posthumously, obviously).

I am not saying that this means they have expanded their boundaries of what music is worthy of annual consideration, but occasionally they decide to at least acknowledge the existence of something different.