Theatre yesterday and today



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On Monday, the small, select committee designated to present this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama announced their choice for 2017. It was given to Lynn Nottage for her play Sweat, which opened on Broadway just two weeks ago, though a previous production (virtually identical) premiered last fall Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, where I first saw it. It was Nottage’s second Pulitzer, the only female playwright to achieve this distinction in the near 100 year history of the award. She won in 2009 for Ruined, which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway and ran for seven months, extension after extension. Anointed with a Pulitzer was one honor, but so was being cited by the Lucille Lortel Award, the NY Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Obie Award and the Drama Desk Award. Yet no producers stepped forward to move Ruined to Broadway for an open-ended run. Sweat is the show that marks Lynn Nottage’s Broadway debut.

Sweat, currently playing on Broadway at Studio 54

The play’s piercing insights are based on conversations Nottage had with dozens of Reading, Pennsylvania citizens over the course of the last few years. Eventually joined by her longtime collaborator, the director Kate Whoriskey, these talks give the play a language all its own. Devastated by economic downturns, mainly due to the closing of a main factory, Reading’s 88,000 population was cited as the poorest city in North America in 2011. Sweat deals with racism, populism, anti-government anger, women in the workplace, drug addiction and an ever-present potential violence that is constantly brewing beneath the surface.

This year, Sweat’s main competition for the Pulitzer are interesting to look at. Dear Evan Hansen, the original musical by Stephen Levenson, with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, was talked about in some circles, but apparently didn’t merit mention as a contested alternative choice. The drama, The Wolves by twenty-six year old Sarah DeLappe about a girls’ high school soccer team received a number of votes, as did A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, by Taylor Mac, described by the Pulitzer committee as “a marathon musical journey that challenges the persistent societal demons of racism, sexism and homophobia.” Both worthy of consideration, such choices are indicative of how the Pulitzers have grown to look outside the box for its winners.

But one statistic can’t be ignored; that when it comes to musicals, even though they receive the final award of the night at the Tonys (the biggest and most anticipated award of that evening’s broadcast), it’s always been the bastard stepchild at the Pulitzers since its earliest days. In fact, the very first time a musical was chosen for the Pulitzer, the political satire Of Thee I Sing in 1932, the award was given to its authors George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and to its lyricist Ira Gershwin. Yeah, who’s missing here? The composer George Gershwin was not considered an “author.” This slight was corrected the second time the Pulitzer for Drama was given to a musical eighteen years later. South Pacific’s co-book writers Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan were cited as well as Richard Rodgers, and justly so. Whether the thinking behind the designating of a composer like Rodgers cost he and Hammerstein an earlier (and what would have been a well-deserved Pulitzer for Oklahoma! in 1943) is something we’ll never know. Runners-up were not announced then, as they are today (and have been since 1983).

William Gaxton and Victor Moore in Of Thee I Sing (1932).

There have only been nine musicals to receive the Pulitzer of the eighty-eight times the prize has been presented, measured out to roughly one per decade. Perhaps one of the reasons Dear Evan Hansen might not have entered into the conversation this year is because of last season’s Hamilton — the odds-on favorite the entire year it took for the award to be announced. No two musicals have ever been chosen back-to-back in the Pulitzer’s history. The closest something like that occurred was when Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s Fiorello! (which opened in 1959), won the prize in 1960, followed by How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, written by Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser in 1962. The next musical wasn’t until fourteen years later when A Chorus Line, written by Nicholas Dante, James Kirkwood, Ed Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch was designated in 1976.

It’s also significant to note that “No choice” is an option that the Pulitzer can announce anytime it finds nothing worthy in a given year, though it hasn’t done so since 1997 (it has done so twelve times since its inception in 1918). The most notorious occasion was in the year 1963 when Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the choice of the jury, only to be overruled by the Pulitzer Advisory Board, which had in its power the right to nullify any decision. This caused a huge controversy, as the award was clearly Albee’s and cries of “censorship” were not misguided. The play had a frankness in its language and sensibility that startled audiences, but the literary prowess of its author was unquestioned. It was a superb evening in the theatre and won every other award available. However, the Pulitzer snub (and a snub it was) didn’t result in any big changes in the rules. The Pulitzer Advisory Board still has the authority to overrule any choice, which is what happened in 1986 when the jury chose The CIVIL warS, an opera created by director Robert Wilson to the music of Philip Glass, David Byrne and others, only to be told by the Board “not so fast.” So they gave no prize, just like in 1963 with Virginia Woolf.

Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

And who are the people charged with bestowing the Pulitzer Prize for Drama? They vary from year to year and for the first half of its existence, the committees always consisted of older white men, which certainly account for some of the choices that were made. This year’s group included just five — four critics and one academic. I don’t have the ethnic or male/female ratio available, but here’s hoping it’s a diverse one.

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama’s mandate is to award “a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” By those or any other standards, Sweat is a deserving choice for the honor. It’s playing now at Studio 54. See it.

Playwright Lynn Nottage

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: