The Pulitzer Prize is among the most prestigious awards offered in American arts. Originally established in 1917 as a provision in the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the award has become a hallmark of achievement in journalism, literature, and music. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama has set a more serious tone for its awardees than other theater awards given and is not limited to any of the geographic or size strictures used as criteria by other awards.
The drama jury selects the award winner with the important caveat that The Pulitzer board may overrule the choice. This has happened twice, irst with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? due to language and subject matter, and later with Robert Wilson’s as yet unproduced piece the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, an epic piece comprised of six works by six composers from six different countries.
There is no pressure to give the award every year. So far there have been 15 years in which the prize went unclaimed. The jury, made up of one academic and four critics, acknowledge the best dramatic work and do not feel compelled to award if they see none. Another interesting feature is that the prize for drama has only overlapped with the Tony Award for Best Play or Musical 23 times in its history. Looking at the overlap, it appears that the Pulitzer generally rewards more “serious” work (not to be confused with better or more impactful).
Over the course of the 100 years of the award’s history, musicals have been awarded 10 times and feature some of the Prize’s greatest diversity in tone and subject matter. From the highly satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Of Thee I Sing to the heartfelt A Chorus Line and Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals demonstrate a level of brilliance above and beyond most work.
Taking a look at two notable musical winners, A Chorus Line and Hamilton. Both works are built on unparalleled levels of honesty and vulnerability. A Chorus Line could be considered, along with Working and Runaways, to be one of the first documentary musicals ever written. The powerful narrative structure of A Chorus Line separates it from the other two works, which follow a more revue-like structure.
Hamilton similarly stands out in a small crowd of historically based musicals. The level of innovation in that case, the blending of musical genres, and the through-designed production certainly contribute to making it a singular theatrical experience of this decade, which is generally the rate at which musicals are awarded a Pulitzer. Another amazing musical Pulitzer winner, Sunday in the Park With George, tells its story woven through an Impressionist painting, ”Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” by Georges Seurat. These works of musical theater are unlike anything that has come before.
While loathe to equate money with artistic success, most theater artists would say that they prefer a larger audience for their productions than not. There are exceptions to that. For example, the Living Theater famously sought to create an avant-garde space that spoke specifically to an emerging counter-culture generation. The Pulitzer does not concern itself with such things. It does provide us with a magnificent list of amazing dramatic work from the 20th and 21st centuries that we can use as a starting point for a great reading list. Works as diverse as Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude to Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy can provide a spellbinding journey through American dramatic literature.
For access to a number of prize-winning shows, visit BroadwayHD.com and subscribe.