On a strictly bureaucratic level, Pulitzer protocol requires a majority vote from the board on the nominations. Perhaps the theater, with its democratic origins harking back to 5th century BC Athens, simply divides people more passionately than other art forms, creating gridlock of congressional proportions. But it's hard to see how a Rodney Dangerfield complex isn't an occupational hazard. Even in 1963, when Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was in contention, no play was deemed worthy by the fastidious board, which selected William Faulkner's "The Reivers" as its fiction winner, a work that has hardly had the same posterity.
Fortunately, nonprofit theaters continue to be interested in the finalists. ("Bengal Tiger" opens April 25 at the Mark Taper Forum in a return engagement of Moises Kaufman's acclaimed production.) But the climate everywhere for serious drama is forbidding. The odds are stacked against the next generation, and the Pulitzer board's penchant for crowning those who have already received their coronations isn't helping matters.
Production vs. drama
Nevertheless, congratulations to "Next to Normal." The musical's rock score may be generic and it's understanding of mental illness simplistic, but there's a searching emotional quality to the piece, which was expertly staged by Michael Greif in a production dominated by Alice Ripley's raw, Tony-winning performance.
Too bad the board doesn't have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work.
Veteran Pulitzer watchers may laugh at my expectation that those in charge will be equipped with such a sensibility. Why should the theater be exempt from the general stodginess? Yet bold vision is as fundamental to playwriting as reliable sources are to reporting.
It was fortuitous that Bill Clinton and his family attended "Next to Normal" just prior to its winning the prize. But for the award to carry artistic weight, it must be able to recognize the new before it rises to the level of an event deemed worthy of a presidential visit.