Pulitzer Drama Juror David Rooney Weighs In On Next to Normal Win

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13 Apr 2010

Pulitzer Prize juror and theatre critic David Rooney spoke to Playbill.com following an article penned by drama jury chair Charles McNulty in the LA Times, which questioned the Pulitzer Prize board's selection process of the Broadway rock musical Next to Normal as the 2010 winner in the Drama category.



Rooney, Variety's former chief theatre critic, was among the five-member jury that also included L.A. Times theatre critic McNulty, Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, Chicago Sun-Times theatre and dance critic Hedy Weiss and Duke University theatre and English professor John M. Clum.

The Pulitzer board selected Next to Normal as the 2010 winner of the prestigious honor, overriding the jury's recommendations of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph; and In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. Rooney estimates that the jury received upwards of 70 submissions in the drama category prior to agreeing on the three finalists.

Next to Normal was among the works the Pulitzer jury mentioned in the notes it provided to board members. Rooney said, "We had six or seven shows that we all felt strongly about to various degrees. Next to Normal was certainly a show that was in there in the discussion. It's also no secret that we submitted accompanying notes with our jury decisions. Together with the final three [plays], we submitted notes mentioning a number of shows which were regarded highly by some or all of the jury members, and Next to Normal was one of them," Rooney said.

The Pulitzer fact sheet states that "after a three-fourths vote, the prize went to a musical that had not been nominated by the jury." Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler told the New York Times that the board moved away from the jury's recommendations when a majority vote on one of the three final plays could not be reached.

"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."

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. 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. As did other things they might have seen in New York, The Orphans' Home Cycle, Next Fall."

"I think that creates some kind of disparity," Rooney said. "I'm certainly not saying the board was wrong."

When asked if the jury and board should reconsider how they evaluate the drama submissions, Rooney responded, "If you look down the disciplines that the Pulitzer acknowledges and rewards, theatre is really the only one that is so penalized by the limitations of just appreciating it on the page. Photography, journalism, fiction, poetry, everything else, the jury whittles down to their shortlist of three, hands that shortlist onto the board, and the board gets to appreciate that shortlist to its fullest extent. Whereas in theatre, the jury wades through the scripts and the productions they've seen, passes those onto the board and the board [is] then forced to consider a play and to think in their head how that play would work on stage. Often, the majority of the board members are not people with direct experience at reading and interpreting plays and gauging what is going to work on stage. So, I think something that they actually go and see a production of has a clear advantage."

Rooney agreed with McNulty's sentiments in the April 13 response in the L.A. Times to the Pulitzer board's decision: "I think Charlie is right in thinking that you hire a jury to do a job to be supportive of their area of expertise and then to kind of disregard that because no one really got it on the page [is disappointing]... I'm thrilled at least that a prize was awarded and that it was a musical that had been in our discussions. So, I would have been very upset if we had put in all the work and they had made the decision not to give a prize this year. So, I'm less upset about it being Next to Normal, though it would not have been my choice."

However, Rooney noted that the musical about a family struggling to survive the ravages of mental illness, penned by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, "does have dramatic integrity. The part of me that is a big Broadway supporter and likes to see people pushing the boundaries of musicals is thrilled that a musical gets the prize. It doesn't happen very often in the Pulitzers, and whether or not I agree with it a hundred percent is one thing, but I think it's great for Broadway and great for producers to see that there is some reward there in experimenting in new forms and risky subject matter on Broadway that maybe 10 years ago everyone would have said, 'There's no way that could have had a Broadway life.'

"I think more and more we're seeing people push the boundaries on that with Spring Awakening and Next to Normal and Passing Strange and Grey Gardens. Not all of them worked commercially, but they all continue to push the idea of what a musical is and what kind of audience it can reach. And I think to that end, I applaud the fact that they recognized a show that wasn't a slam dunk commercially."