April 13, 2010, 9:35 am

Pulitzer Juror Criticizes Choice for Drama Prize

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

How did “Next to Normal” end up winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama on Monday when the five-person drama jury — responsible for evaluating the entries of plays and musicals — did not include “Next to Normal” among its three nominees for the prize?

This is the third time in five years that the Pulitzer board has overridden its jury: In 2006, the board gave no prize in the drama category in spite of having three nominees from the drama jury. In 2007, the board ignored the jury’s nominees and gave the award to David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Rabbit Hole.” And now it has done the same, giving the prize to Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) for “Next to Normal.”

The chairman of the drama jury, the Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty, has weighed in with a provocative column on Tuesday, criticizing the “mandarins” at Columbia University’s journalism school — where the Pulitzers are administered — for ignoring “the advice of its drama jury in favor of its own sentiments.”

We’ve placed calls to members of the Pulitzer board in hopes of learning an answer. But that hope is a slim one: The board traditionally does not explain itself. What is known, via a press release from the board, is that three-quarters of the 20 board members voted to reach into the original pool of entries and honor “Next to Normal.”

Interviews on Monday night and Tuesday morning with some longtime drama prize watchers yielded a few theories. The leading one is that board members tend to favor plays and musicals that they themselves have seen, which by and large means that shows running in New York have an edge.

The last six winners — “Next to Normal,” “Ruined,” “August: Osage County,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Doubt” and “I Am My Own Wife” — were all running on Broadway or Off Broadway as the Pulitzers were being decided. For the record, among the jury’s three finalists this year, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” had runs in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively, and “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” closed on Broadway early this winter. (“Chad Deity” will have an Off Broadway run this spring at Second Stage Theater.)

The drama prize in 2003 went to a play that had not had a New York run at that point, Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics.” It was produced in New York later that year, and had a short run. Mr. Cruz happened to be a juror in the drama category this year.

While no one has publicly criticized honoring “Next to Normal” on its merits, there has been some public and private grousing about the board’s override of the drama jury. Is the board not giving clear guidelines to its drama jurors? Is the board unhappy with the jurors, who were once mostly drama critics but this year included three critics, a theater professor, and the playwright Mr. Cruz?

Any theories or educated guess about the Pulitzer board vs. drama jury dynamics, and why “Next to Normal” ended up emerging as the surprise winner this year?


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