The announcement of the Pulitzer Prize for drama created some unsettling drama of its own on Monday. The Pulitzer board, meeting in New York, ignored the five-person theater jury’s top three choices — only one of which has had a New York production. Instead, the board of 17 journalists gave the prize to Next to Normal, which is currently running in New York. Next to Normal had been favorably mentioned in the theater jury’s report, but it wasn’t one of the three finalists.
I can’t comment on which show deserves the award, because I’ve seen only one of the four contenders — Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It played the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City and will re-open on April 25 at the Mark Taper Forum.
What’s disturbing is the report in the New York Times that at least several board members — “a lot of them,” according to one unattributed Times source — went to see Next to Normal Thursday night before the final voting on Friday. Their reactions apparently pushed the play into the winner’s circle.
The three officially designated finalists lacked that same ability to influence voters on the eve of the decision. Even the one finalist that had played New York — Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) — wasn’t running during the voting period. It’s likely that many of the voters have seen no more of the four top contenders than I have.
The awards are supposedly for the script, not the productions, and board members had access to scripts. But it shouldn’t be necessary to point out that most dramatic works come to life on the stage, more than on the page. The merits of a great production can sometimes temporarily overwhelm judgment about the scripts. Problems become more apparent from the distance of the morning after — or the week after — or during the revival of the script in a not-so-great production, maybe years later.
Either all voters should be required to have seen productions of all of the finalists, or none of the voters should have seen any of the finalists and should cast their votes based only on the scripts. The first option sounds impractical, and the second option sounds a little ridiculous — you don’t want people who have no natural curiosity about the theater to be the voters. But then again, how many of the current voters actually go to the theater all that often?
These problems explain why the board should respect the recommendations of the jury, which is made up of dedicated theater observers who make special efforts to see leading contenders.
It’s depressing that these issues are still arising in 2010. In 1992, when Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle won the drama Pulitzer after productions only in Seattle and Los Angeles, I quoted (in an article for the L.A. Times) these words from the acting secretary of the Pulitzer board, “It is safe to say that this is the first time that a play that has not played in New York has won the prize.” The Pulitzers’ long-awaited recognition of the decentralization of the American theater had arrived, or so it seemed.
Another fresh-from-L.A. play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, won the following year without having opened in New York — although part one of Tony Kushner’s opus was on the verge of a Gotham opening. Its first New York preview occurred the day after the announcement of the prize.
But this receptivity to theater outside New York didn’t last long. The only other similar triumph of a play that had yet to be seen in New York was in 2003, when Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics won. In 1997 and 2006, the Pulitzer board had the audacity to not give a drama award at all, rather than choosing one of the finalists. It’s not as if the juries’ picks in those years had been too arcane — in 1997, the spellbinding Collected Stories by Donald Margulies was one of the finalists, and in 2006 two sharp yet accessible comedies, Christopher Durang’s Miss Witherspoon and Rolin Jones’ The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow were among the finalists (yes, Jenny Chow is my favorite example of an L.A.-set play that has yet to be seen in L.A.). In 2007, the board rejected the jury’s admittedly more obscure choices in order to give the prize to David Lindsay-Abaire’s most conventional play, The Rabbit Hole.
Charles McNulty, the L.A. Times critic, was the chairman of the jilted jury this year. He expressed his irritation here. People who are asked to serve on next year’s jury might well wonder: Why bother?
Again, none of this is to denigrate Next to Normal. Angelenos will get a crack at judging it for ourselves in November, when the national tour opens at the Ahmanson.