In a decision that has surely left many in the theater world scratching their heads, the Pulitzer Prize board on Monday bestowed its 2009 drama award to the musical “Next to Normal.”
The edgy musical, which opened last spring on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, has been a critical and audience hit, but it was not viewed as a favorite to win by industry watchers. At last year’s Tony Awards, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” beat out “Next to Normal” for the award for best musical.
The Pulitzer board made the rare but not unprecedented decision of ignoring the list of finalists submitted by the nominating jury. This year, the finalists were Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).”
The last time the Pulitzer board chose to overlook the list of finalists was in 2007, when it gave the prize to “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire.
Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers, said that he couldn’t comment about the board’s confidential deliberations but said that the drama category was a “complicated” decision.
“Each of the finalists had merit but none achieved a majority vote,” he said from New York.
Gissler said “Next to Normal” was brought in after receiving a 3/4 vote from the board. He added that “Next to Normal” was mentioned favorably in the jury’s report and that the board decided to take a look at it based on that mention.
“Next to Normal,” which features a book by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, tells the story of a dysfunctional suburban family coping with psychological disorders and a host of domestic problems.
The creators of the show said Monday afternoon that they were stunned and shocked upon learning of their win.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said Yorkey in a phone interview.
“The only clear thought I’ve had is that when you write for public consumption, you want to know that it has an impact somehow. And this is an unbelievable affirmation.”
Kitt said he had no inkling that “Next to Normal” was Pulitzer material. “Eleven years ago when we started on this, we never thought we would be here today talking about this,” he said.
The pair said that they have already begun work on a new original musical with David Stone, the producer of “Next to Normal.”
The musical opened in 2008 at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre before transferring to Broadway last March. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won for original score, orchestrations and lead actress Alice Ripley.
“Next to Normal” joins the small group of musicals to have won the Pulitzer, which has generally gone to straight plays. Past musical winners include “Rent,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Chorus Line.”
In the days leading up to the Pulitzers, some reports speculated that “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” by the late Horton Foote might win the prize. Other titles bandied about included “Next Fall” by Geoffrey Nauffts, “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker and “The Brother/Sister Plays” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
A national tour of “Next to Normal” will kick off in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre, where it will run Nov. 23 to Jan. 2.