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The Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2016 - a Prediction

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

On Monday 18th April 2016 the Pulitzer Prize for Drama will be awarded, alongside a number of finalists in the category. The award is seen as being one of the highest achievements in American drama, and is awarded to "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life".

Writers can submit their plays for consideration, and usually the piece has to have run at some point in the past calender year, rather than the Broadway season which runs June to April. As well as the prestige that goes alongside the title the Pulitzer also includes a $10,000 cash prize that in the case of the Drama award can be divided between the writing team.

Whilst no formal shortlist is announced, it is thought that Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton will take home the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, marking the first time a musical has won the award since 2010, when Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal claimed the prize. The awards are often dominated by straight dramas but musicals have won a number of times, averaging around one per decade since 1930. Shows such as 'South Pacific', 'A Chorus Line' and 'Rent' have each won in their respected year of opening, and the list of musicals certainly makes for a definitive list of those shows that have entered the greater American psyche.

London is soon to have the UK première of 2014 winner The Flick, which begins performances at the National's Dorfman Theatre on 13 April, with an official opening on 18 April 2016. Written by Annie Baker and directed by Sam Gold, the play premièred Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. Following the announcement of the play winning the Pulitzer Prize, it reopened at the Barrow Street Theatre on 18 May 2015 where it ran for a limited season.

The London première is already proving to be a hit, with sold out performances at the National throughout most of the run. The play was somewhat divisive in terms of critical response, with many finding issue with the length and apparent inaction, whilst others praised the writing and its ability to indulge the "existential minutiae" of day to day life.

Whether London audiences find the same points of criticism will be clear after opening, but its winning of the Pulitzer Prize shows that the awarding committee don't always chose the obvious front runner in the race. In the same year, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home was a Pulitzer finalist, but despite unanimous critical praise did not win the award, widening the gap between the winning musicals.

Whilst Lin-Manuel may be waiting with baited breath to see if Hamilton takes home the 2016 prize, the anxious feeling is certainly not new to him. His 2009 musical In The Heights which he wrote alongside Quiara Alegría Hudes was a Pulitzer finalist, but lost out to Lynn Nottage's play Ruined. Like 'Fun Home', the show went on to win that year's prize for Best New Musical at the Tony Awards that same year. Of the eight musicals that have been awarded the Pulitzer since 1930, only three have failed to also win the Tony; 'Of Thee I Sing' (which opened before the Tony's were established), Sondheim and Lapine's 'Sunday in the Park with George' and 'Next to Normal'.

Looking at the list of eight Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals, it's not hard to see what each of them have in common. The prize is awarded to a work that "deals with American life", and somehow manages to capture a moment and feeling in time that future generations will use as a window to that specific cultural frame.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Musicals

Of Thee I Sing by George and Ira Gershwin (1932)

South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein (1950)

Fiorello! By Bock & Harnick (1960)

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Frank Loesser (1962)

A Chorus Line by Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, James Kirkwood, and Nicholas Dante (1976)

Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (1985)

Rent by Jonathan Larson (1996)

Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt (2010)

Despite having widely different subject matters from political campaigns through to the art of making art and living with HIV, each musical is a definitive example from their relative decade about the form of musical theatre and its evolution throughout time. Not only do each of the productions deal with distinctly American themes, they do so in unique and compellingly dramatic forms, that prove there is no winning formula for the award. From the deeply satiric yet surface-level charm of 'How to Succeed...' through the ground-breaking work of Michael Bennett, redefining the style and structure of what audiences have come to expect, each show thoroughly deserves its recognition.

If you were to pick a set of musicals to preserve in a time capsule, or send to another planet for an exploration of human life and the history of the form, you'd be hard pressed to find a more effective list. In each case the productions exist in their own context, as well as offer a unique slice of Americana within their relative form.

Hamilton is certainly a musical that has pushed the boundaries of musical theatre in a way that hasn't been seen on commercial Broadway for some time. Whilst the previous winners each challenged the status quo - whether through form, structure, musicality or presentation - Hamilton certainly checks the same box when it comes to contextual relevance. It's hard to think of another show that equally represents the "American life" so succinctly, using the story of a founding father told through the eyes of America in 2016.

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is announced on Monday 18th April 2016. You can read more about the award, and watch the live stream of the event by clicking here

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