Siding with Pulitzer
My husband, Matthew, came home the other day with a gift for me. One of those “for no reason” gifts that you just kind of happen upon. He brought me home a book, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. The only reason, he says, is that it had won a Pulitzer Prize (2013). He knows I always side with the Pulitzer. For whatever reason, it is an award that seems to always work out for me in the long run. I’ll explain.
The Tonys and the Oscars and the Grammys et al. function generally the same way. There’s a year of a whole lot of new work in various respective mediums, a group of people decide the nominees, which are presented to the public a few weeks to a month before, and then we see a lavish ceremony where we agree or disagree and then take our complaints about the downfall of the future of the arts to social media. Such is the way of the popular awards show.
The Pulitzers, which essentially award achievements in writing and are administered by Columbia University, are quite different. They are, for one, much more secretive. You don’t know the nominees until the awards are announced in April. There are always speculations, many of which are accurate, but you never really know. Everyone knew that Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were in the running for Fun Home this year, as well as Annie Baker for her play The Flick, but the 2012 prize was a complete surprise, as Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play Water by the Spoonful came out of nowhere (the play, by the way, is stunning) and took the prize, overshadowing Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet.
The Pulitzers also recognize many women and people of color, both in prizes and in the selection committee. If you look at the drama category, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Margaret Edson, Paula Vogel, Marsha Norman, Mary Chase, and Wendy Wasserstein have all been awarded, and in general fiction, Donna Tartt Jennifer Egan, Annie Proulx (twice), Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Edna Ferber, among many others, have all won the prize.
When I watch, say, the Tonys, I have generally seen almost all of the pieces nominated, and I know what I would like to win, and I will be disappointed by something by the end of the night. With the Pulitzer, I don’t have the opportunity to rush to see or read everything nominated. I get to wait until the day of to find out what has been honored that year. I then go find a copy of that piece, and read or see it, and I am never disappointed. I didn’t start to follow the Pulitzer winners until fairly recently, so the first piece that I actively sought out after the prize announcement was Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto (2010 for music composition).
The ingenuity of the piece, the beauty in writing, and the otherworldly sounds Higdon uses to communicate the story in this concerto is mind-blowing to me. Each movement is deeply personal to Ms. Higdon, and it really drove me to seek out all of her other work, an oboe concerto, for instance, which I subsequently performed in college.
2010 was also the year that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey took home the prize for Next to Normal, a rare musical theatre winner (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, How to Succeed…, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and Rent are some of the few musicals on the list of winners for drama).
After this awards season, after being so blown away by the winners, I decided to find other Pulitzer prize winning works, in drama, composition, and in general fiction, and see just what made them tick. I found Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, among many, many, others, and I studied them. I also found that many of my favorite works from before had also won:
John Corigliano’s Symphony #2 was a life-changing piece of music for me as a composer.
Like many young gay college students in theatre, Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America spoke to me on a very deep level.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog was one of my favorite repeated reads, and one of the most electrifying plays I’d ever experienced in the theatre.
Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is unashamedly my favorite musical of all time, and the first I’d learned all of the words to as a kid.
I was asked, as I was discussing this topic with a friend and collaborator, if I loved and respected these pieces simply because the Pulitzer Committee told me that they were brilliant and worth loving and respecting. A valid question after all because, as I said before, many of us don’t get the chance to see all of the nominees before the announcement, as they aren’t revealed until the prize is given. After thinking of all the pieces I’d fallen in love with before ever finding the Pulitzer Prize, I realized that my interests and taste and style and preferences in writing actually fall into exactly what the Pulitzer Committee chooses for their award. It’s become a litmus test to what kinds of pieces I’d like to spend time with, study, and really get to know on a deep level.
I’ll leave you with this, last year’s winner for music composition. From Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices. Talk about things I’d wished I written…