Musicals and the Pulitzer Prize

Musicals and the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama is given every year to a theatrical piece that stands out, above and beyond the rest of the pack in a given calendar year. Many amazing plays have been awarded the prize while just as many game changers have been overlooked honoring what are arguably less-deserving candidates. On a rare occasion, such as what happened this week with Hamilton, a musical is awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Nine musicals have been crowned with this honor that may be the only accolade that supersedes the Best Musical Tony Award. Today's blog is a celebration of those nine musicals, ranking them in order of their significance, power and shelf-life. 

9. Fiorello!

Fiorello! is a seldom-performed musical with a score by Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me) that just doesn't resonate with today's audiences the way that it did in 1959. Fiorello LaGuardia, the former mayor of New York (for whom a high school and an airport are named) is best remembered for taking on corruption in city politics in the 1930s and bringing an end to the strong arm of Tammany Hall influence.  Fiorello! is the story of how he became mayor and managed to implement change. The score includes some well-regarded songs including "Politics and Poker", "I Love a Cop" and "Till Tomorrow". Fiorello! is also remembered as the musical that tied with The Sound of Music for the 1960 Best Musical Tony Award. 

Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in  Next to Normal.

Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal.

8. Next to Normal

The world of mental illness and how it plagues a family is expertly demonstrated in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) chart some stormy seas, inviting us into the world of Diana Goodman, a woman who suffers from bipolar disorder. An intensely charged and emotionally overwrought score capture the day to day pain of the Goodmans through such songs as "You Don't Know", "I Am the One" and "Super Boy and Invisible Girl." The 2009 Broadway musical is an emotionally raw and cathartic roller coaster.

7. How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying

Frank Loesser wrote the lively music and lyrics and Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert penned the book for this satire of big business based on Shepherd Mead's 1952 book How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. The story of a window washer who works his way up the corporate ladder to become chairman of the board was the perfect basis for a screwball comedy laced with biting satire. Among the popular songs: "I Believe in You", "A Secretary is Not a Toy" and "Brotherhood of Man." 

Jonathan Larson in front of NYTW's poster for  Rent .

Jonathan Larson in front of NYTW's poster for Rent.

6. Rent

Jonathan Larson (book, music and lyrics) did not live long enough to witness the legacy his 1996 Broadway musical Rent would become. The story of twenty-something creative types living a bohemian lifestyle (on the verge of eviction) while simultaneously dealing with the heartbreak of HIV was the emotional powerhouse musical of the decade. "Seasons of Love", "La Vie Boheme" and "I'll Cover You" are standouts in a pop/rock score that became one of the most listened to of the 90s.

5. South Pacific

Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is a beloved musical in the canon of American musical theatre, remembered for its colorful but flawed characters and its themes of racial prejudice and war. Set on an island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, two couples struggle to deal with the racial diversity that affects their romances. One of them, a young officer, underlines the complexities of the situation in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." The number was audacious for its time, daring to probe the inner workings of prejudice, asserting that it's not an inborn trait but rather something learned, passed from generation to generation. For a musical written in 1949, this was cutting edge theatre that was addressing topical issues in an unyielding way. 

Original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.

4. A Chorus Line

When Michael Bennett assembled a bunch of Broadway gypsies and gathered their stories of how they came to show business and why they stayed, a musical of epic proportions was the result. A Chorus Line (1975) takes place at an audition for a Broadway show. A director is casting the chorus for an upcoming production and part of his audition process is asking the performers to bare their souls and show him who they are. Through deftly revealing musical numbers by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Ed Kleban (lyrics) such as "At the Ballet", "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love", we learned their stories while identifying with what it means to put yourself "on the line" for something. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) and the cast of Hamilton.

3. Hamilton

Nowadays, every other theatre news item involves Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, so it is hardly necessary to cite all of the "revolutionary" attributes of this must-see musical of the 2015-2016 season. The musical is most noteworthy for its embrace of diversity in telling the story of our American forefathers, using a wide variety of musical styles (including rap and hip-hop) and an across-the -board inclusion of performers from a wide variety of ethnicities. Time will decide its long term legacy, but winning the Pulitzer is sure to help establish its place as an important benchmark in musical theatre. 

2. Of Thee I Sing

Musical theatre satire is rare and it is rarely successful, but when it works, it works. It was never more comical and effective than in the Pulitzer-winning Of Thee I Sing. The musical, with a score by the Brothers Gershwin and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, tells the story of a fictional presidential election, spoofing the ins and out of the campaign "Wintergreen for President" who is running on a platform of "Love". A subplot (and running joke) involves his running mate named Throttlebottom, who no one seems to know or remember. Written in 1931, Of Thee I Sing is the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. 

1. Sunday in the Park with George

No musical has ever more completely conveyed the struggle of the artistic process nor captured the the trade offs an artist makes to bring their work to fruition than Sunday in the Park with George. Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) took the famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat and brought it to life, showing the challenges the artist met in creating the masterpiece. Thenthe musical jumps ahead 100 years, and, in a parallel story, shows Seurat's great grandson struggling to be an artist as well. With songs like "Finishing the Hat", "Beautiful" and "Move On", Sunday in the Park with George (1984) is the theatrical embodiment of every artist's journey. 

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