PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 10-April 16: The Pulitzer Paradox

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 10-April 16: The Pulitzer Paradox
 
The show business community is at its most bi-polar when it comes to awards organizations.
Next to Normal star Alice Ripley
Next to Normal star Alice Ripley Photo by Joan Marcus

Critics, producers and artists will spend the year righteously railing against such-and-such a prize, enumerating the many flaws of its selection process, ridiculing its choices, deriding the intelligence of its judges and dismissing its importance. Then, as awards season creeps near, the community does an about-face and suddenly invests heavily in the outcome. Of course, if the result it not to its liking — which it usually isn't — the theatre folk are indignant all over again. Didn't Einstein say that one of the definitions of insanity was doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result?

Observers have been calling the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a bankrupt institution as far back as 1963, when the Pulitzer board disregarded the drama nominating jury's recommendation that the award go to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The board thought the Albee classic too nasty; it awarded no prize instead. And yet, this week Los Angeles Times drama critic Charles McNulty, the chair of this year's jury, was shocked — shocked! — when the Pulitzer judges ignored the jury's three recommendations and handed the Drama prize to the hit Broadway musical Next to Normal, the Tony Award-winning rock musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey that had been on the tip of no one's tongues in the weeks preceding the award announcement.

McNulty was not happy at being ignored and — as journalists are liable to do when they are not happy — quickly reached for his laptop. He published a column lambasting the Pulitzer brass' decision. "I can't help being ticked off," he wrote in high dudgeon. "Two points, in particular, rankle: the blinkered New York mentality and the failure to appreciate new directions in playwriting. The board had an opportunity to correct these long-standing shortcomings, and it blew it."

He then went on to paint a bleak historical portrait of the prize. "The Pulitzer for drama has never been at the forefront of theatrical breakthroughs," he wrote. "The board's inability to see that the quality of a play has less to do with content than how that content is dramatically expressed has led to some head-scratchers over the years. How Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers won over John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation remains a mystery to me, but then I wouldn't be tempted to purchase a season subscription featuring revivals of such past winners as Donald L. Coburn's The Gin Game and David Auburn's Proof either."

OK, the Pulitzers stink. We get it. But the column begs the questions, "Why be the jury chair for an award organization for which you have contempt? Why not decline and be rid of the whole rotten business?" The same questions can be laid at the feet of the countless theatre people who bemoan the state of the Tony Awards, and yet continue to serve the organization of nominators or voters. Look at all the blowback over the Tony's decision last year to kick critics out of the voting pool. "The Tonys are hopelessly corrupted," screamed the writers who were mad they could no longer vote for the Tonys. It reminded me of the "Simpsons" episode in which Homer was mad at being denied membership in the secret Stonecutters club. "Why won't those stupid idiots let me in their crappy club for jerks?!" he ranted. In a similar vein, Ben Brantley of the New York Times penned an article about the controversy. "I have never bought a book, read a poem or seen a play because it was by a Pulitzer winner," he wrote. "So any indignation being vented over this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama leaves me a bit mystified." And yet, here he was taking the time to write an opinion piece all about the thing he doesn't care about. Way not to care. And so the much-despised beast is fed yet again.

Former chief theatre critic of Variety David Rooney was also on this year's jury, and had a more measured reaction. "I was surprised, but I had to confess, I had a gut feeling that they might end up going their own way," Rooney explained of the April 12 Pulitzer announcement. "If you look at the history, particularly in recent years, I think it's very clear that things that are actually on the boards and playing in New York have a better chance." (In fact, several Pulitzer board members apparently saw Next to Normal the night before the prize was awarded; the show had been mentioned in notes provided by the jury.)

He continued, "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. 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... So, Next to Normal already has a huge advantage there." Rooney's comments seem to indicate that he accepts the Pulitzer's award-giving machinery as being broken, and approaches its functions as reflective of that deficiency. Which is a healthier way to look at things, certainly. But one still has to wonder why he chose to be a member of a club he doesn't think much of.

The brouhaha mushroomed so high that Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler felt compelled to speak out on the subject. He spoke with Playbill.com April 14 to discuss the interview with Rooney. "We do try to limit the disparity between plays that are seen and those that just live on the page. The board, of course, reads all the plays, and it is primarily a playwriting award. But they also try to attend plays, and if that's not possible, we try to arrange for them to see videos of the plays."

As for all dust being kicked up, he observed, blithely, "Drama stirs up a lot of interest and stirs up a lot of controversy. I think it's all part of the scene." Which does not sound like an organization that's bent on mending itself.

It's enough to put a damper on the winners' experience. Amid all the arguments, Kitt and Yorkey did get kind of lost of the shuffle. Of course, when asked for their reaction, they said they were pleased. "I can tell you that it's one of the most important things that has ever happened to me," Kitt said of the honor. "To find ourselves here, receiving something that I never dreamed possible is to me another way of the community saying to Brian and I that we created something that matters. To be in line with the shows that have meant so much to us: A Chorus Line, Rent, Sunday in the Park With George..."

And Why Marry?, The Shrike, Miss Lulu Bett, J.B....

If it weren't for the Pulitzer flap, the big news of the week would have been that "Harry Potter" and Equus star Daniel Radcliffe will make his Broadway musical debut in Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (a Pulitzer winner!) in 2011.

Tony Award winner Rob Ashford, who is currently staging the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, will direct and choreograph How to Succeed. Promises, Promises producers Broadway Across America (John Gore, Thomas B. McGrath, Beth Williams), Craig Zadan and Neil Meron will present the revival.

Radcliffe and Ashford previously took part in a December 2009 reading of the musical in New York City.

***

A new musical featuring a score and book by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q Tony winner Robert Lopez will open on Broadway in March 2011. Entitled The Book of Mormon (Ooo — I can see the protesters outside the theatre now), the production will be co-directed by Avenue Q's Jason Moore and Parker.

The Book of Mormon, according to the New York Post, "tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent off to spread the word in a dangerous part of Uganda. Their tale is told alongside the story of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints."

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