Pulitzer Prize Winning Musicals
South Pacific and RENT.
Fiorello and A Strange Loop.
Hamilton and Next to Normal.
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Sunday In The Park With George.
A Chorus Line and Of Thee I Sing.
At first glance, it may not seem like these musicals have much in common.
A political satire from the 1930s doesn’t look like it has any similarities to a musical about the secret lives of Broadway ensemble members.
However, all of the musicals listed above do have something in common, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the plot.
These ten musicals are all winners of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1917 from the living will of newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer to honour and inspire excellence in the arts and journalism. Joseph Pulitzer is often referred to as “the embodiment of American journalism.” He is known not only for running large newspapers like The New York World, and The Saint Louis Dispatch, but for introducing the idea of necessary university training for journalists, and for founding the Columbia School of Journalism.
The category for Drama has existed since the inception of the Pulitzer Prize, which includes 21 separate categories.
While the requirements for each category vary, to be considered for the Drama category a play or musical must be: “an original, by an American author, dealing with American life.”
To find their winning piece, a jury of three critics, an academic, and a playwright attend new musicals in New York City and regional theatres to determine eligibility. The winner is decided by votes cast by members of the panel. While the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s $15,000 prize, is usually awarded solely to the playwright, the production still carries the title and honour as well.
In it’s one hundred and three year history, only ten musicals have won this prestigious award.
Let’s take a look at these pieces and their impact:
OF THEE I SING (1932)
Of Thee I Sing is a political satire following the fictional campaign and Presidency of John P. Wintergreen who runs on the “love” platform. Wintergreen promises that if he is elected, he will marry the girl chosen for him through a beauty pageant. He quickly finds himself in political trouble when he falls in love with Mary Turner instead of the pageant winner selected for him.
This musical was created by George and Ira Gershwin, with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Not only was this the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but is also the first political satire to take the stage as a fully-written book musical. Before this, anything poking fun at the government existed in short musical revues. Of Thee I Sing paved the way for other shows to tackle heavier subjects such as politics and current events, and even to make fun of them as well.
This musical didn’t just change the theatre community, but the Pulitzer Prize itself! The award was granted to George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Ira Gershwin, leaving George unlisted. At this time, the Prize for Drama was only for the written word, and this was the first musical to win. The success of Of Thee I Sing made the composers of a winning musical eligible for the prize as well.
SOUTH PACIFIC (1950)
South Pacific is set on an island (in the South Pacific) during World War II and follows two intercultural love stories. The main romance centers around Nellie, a nurse from Arkansas, who falls in love with Emile, a plantation owner who has two children from his previous marriage to a Polynesian woman. The secondary romance is between U.S. Marine Lieutenant Cable and a beautiful young woman local to the island. During the show, both Americans struggle to overcome their own racial prejudices to be with the people they love.
Based on James A. Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, the musical was written by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan. Though by today’s standards, South Pacific was one of the first mainstream musicals to offer a strong and progressive message on the topic of racism. A key part of this message lies within a song sung by the Lieutenant, called “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, which boldly states that racism isn’t something we are born with, it is something taught by society.
Richard Rodgers was the first composer to be included in the Pulitzer Prize win due to the amendments made after the win of Of Thee I Sing. Originally, the prize was awarded solely to Rodgers and Hammerstein, however Logan was later recognized in an amendment.
Fiorello is about New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from World War I through the following decade. The show covers his rise to power and how he reforms politics in the city by helping put an end to the Tammany Hall political machine.
This bio-musical was written by Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, with music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1962)
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying follows the ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch. While working as a window washer, Finch finds a book called How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and uses it, with a combination of his own smarts, to work his way up the corporate ladder of the Worldwide Wicket Company.
This musical satire of corporate America was written by Abe Burrows, with a score by Frank Loessor.
A CHORUS LINE (1976)
A Chorus Line takes place at an audition for a new Broadway musical. After the first round of cuts, Zach, the director and choreographer, asks the remaining dancers to share their own stories. The dancers bare their souls for a chance to be cast in the show, presenting themselves as individuals and shattering the illusion of an identical chorus.
This musical is based on real life stories from Broadway dancers, and was created by Michael Bennet, James Kirkwood Jr., Marvin Hamlisch, Nicholas Dante and Edward Kleban.
Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize and other accolades, A Chorus Line is credited with saving Broadway. When the show opened in 1975, Broadway attendance was at an all-time low (6.6 million), but quickly shot up to 8.8 million.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1985)
Sunday In The Park With George follows a fictionalized version of Georges Seurat as he creates his famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It shares his struggle to find himself as an artist, and how he manages to alienate his model, lover, and biggest supporter, Dot. A century later, the descendants of George and Dot, who are also artists, face similar struggles.
This musical inspired by Seurat’s masterpiece is one of many collaborations between Stephen Sondheim and James LaPine.
RENT is a rock reimagining of Puccini’s La Boheme, and captures a year in the life of a group of friends living in the artistic community in New York’s East Village during the AIDS crisis.
This cult-hit musical was written by Jonathan Larson, who tragically passed away before this show could open, let alone receive the Pulitzer Prize. RENT featured a diverse cast of loveable characters and presented a new perspective on a harsh reality. This was also the first musical to arrange a “Rush” ticket and lottery system, making the musical accessible to its target audience by providing affordable tickets the day of the show.
Jonathan Larson was the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize to be solely credited for the music, lyrics, and book of the musical receiving this award.
NEXT TO NORMAL (2010)
Next To Normal is a rock musical about a typical American family hiding mental illness from the world. Diana Goodman has been struggling with bipolar depressive illness and delusions for seventeen years following the passing of her infant son. The show recognizes the strain her mental illness puts on her family, and their struggle to find their own “normal.”
This musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is one of the first musicals not only to address mental illness, but to present its harsh realities while exploring the additional themes of trauma, loss, and the meaning of family.
The Pulitzer Prize website refers to Next To Normal as “a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.”*
Hamilton is a hip-hop retelling of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, from his arrival in New York City to his death at the hands of Aaron Burr.
This musical penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda became an instant hit. Hamilton was groundbreaking, presenting historical content in a raw and modern way. It tells the story of America then while showcasing what America looks like now.
The Pulitzer Prize website refers to Hamilton as “a landmark American musical about the gifted and self-destructive founding father whose story becomes both contemporary and irresistible.”*
A STRANGE LOOP (2020)
A Strange Loop tells the story of Usher, a fat, Black, gay man who works as an usher while persuing his career as a writer. Usher is tasked with ghost-writing a new Tyler Perry stage play, and the show’s six-person all-Black-queer ensemble voice his inner thoughts both during the writing process and as he navigates a heteronormative white world.
The most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is written by Michael R. Jackson, and is the first musical to win which was written by a Black person, and without a Broadway run. The musical has been called “cerebral and unapologetic” which addresses the themes of race, religion, and sexuality.
The Pulitzer Prize website refers to A Strange Loop as “a metaﬁctional musical that tracks the creative process of an artist transforming issues of identity, race, and sexuality that once pushed him to the margins of the cultural mainstream into a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities.”*
As you can see, all of these shows are very different, but what remains the same is that they are all game changers.
These musicals not only altered the way we view musical theatre, but paved the way for musicals which followed them.
For example, without Of Thee I Sing, there would be no Fiorello, and without Fiorello there would be no Hamilton. Each one is closely linked to the other, as well as many other musicals which have and will follow in their footsteps.
Did you see your favourite musical on this list?
If so, be sure to drop it in the comments below!
*The Pulitzer Prize webpage only has this commentary listed on the three most recent musical winners.