April 13, 2010, 12:10 pm

Pulitzer Board Members Saw ‘Normal’ Night Before Vote

Next to NormalSara Krulwich/The New York Times Alice Ripley and Louis Hobson in “Next to Normal.”

Several Pulitzer Prize board members went to see the Broadway musical “Next to Normal” last Thursday, the night before the board made its surprise vote to award this year’s drama Pulitzer to the musical, according to two people with firsthand knowledge of the board’s deliberations.

The Pulitzer board met last Thursday and Friday for its final round of deliberations and votes on the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, arts and letters. At that point, the board had three nominees for the drama prize from a jury of theater critics and artists. “Next to Normal” had not been among those nominees, but the musical had been singled out for praise in the jury’s report to the board, according to Sig Gissler, the administrator of the prizes at Columbia University.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Mr. Gissler described some parts of the board’s process that led to the prize for “Next to Normal” – a process that the chairman of the drama jury has criticized as an override by the board “in favor of its own sentiments.”

Mr. Gissler said that the board voted on each of the jury’s three nominations, which had been put forward in alphabetical order by writer, with no stated preference for a winner: “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.

None of the three plays received a majority vote from the board, which is required to win the prize, Mr. Gissler said. Board members then reviewed the jury’s report, which accompanied the nominations, he said. Of the approximately 70 plays and musicals that had been submitted for Pulitzer consideration, the jury’s report mentioned “Next to Normal” for praise, Mr. Gissler said. He would not say if other shows were mentioned in the jury report as well.

Because “Next to Normal” was not among the three nominees put forward by the jury, it required a three-fourths vote of the board to be moved out of the pool of entries and into contention for the prize.

Mr. Gissler would not say if that vote was on Thursday or Friday. But board members had the libretto and score of “Next to Normal” for their consideration, and on Thursday night, several members of the board – who were in New York for their final meetings – went to see “Next to Normal” on Broadway at the Booth Theater. Mr. Gissler declined to say how many of the 17 voting board members attended the show that night. A second person familiar with the board’s deliberations, but who spoke about internal board matters on condition of anonymity, said that “a lot of them” – referring to the board members – went to see “Next to Normal” that night.

On Friday, the Pulitzer board took at least one vote on conferring the drama Pulitzer on “Next to Normal,” and a majority voted in favor. Mr. Gissler said it was not clear whether the board would have awarded no prize in the category – as happened in 2006 – if the award had not gone to “Next to Normal,” noting that perhaps another show or one of the three nominees might have come back into contention.

With the drama jury’s chairman, Charles McNulty of The Los Angeles Times, criticizing the board for passing over the three nominees, Mr. Gissler said “it is unfair to say that the board simply plucked ‘Next to Normal’ out of nowhere for the prize.” He also disagreed with Mr. McNulty’s accusation that the board suffered from “geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away.” Two of the jury’s nominees have not yet had runs in New York.

“I think the chair is understandably disappointed, but I do think the board is open to regional theater,” Mr. Gissler said. “We’ll pay to send members to see shows all over the country. And some of the best regional productions, by the time we consider them, have made it to New York, like ‘August: Osage County,’ which began in Chicago. I do think we try to look out around the country, such as in 2003, when ‘Anna in the Tropics’ won – a play that came from a small regional theater.”

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