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Hamilton just won the Pulitzer for drama. Here’s why it matters for American musicals.

Hamilton
Hamilton on Broadway.

Hamilton just won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, in a move that surprised absolutely no one. While the plays it was up against — The Humans and Gloria — were both well-respected and admired, only Hamilton was written by a MacArthur-certified genius. It became a foregone conclusion a long time ago that Hamilton would be riding its tidal wave of critical acclaim straight to the Pulitzers.

It's a historic victory in a lot of ways, but here's one of them: Hamilton is the ninth musical ever to win a Pulitzer in the 99 years of the awards' history.

Historically, it's very rare for a musical to win a Pulitzer

Musicals are rarely even considered to be in the running for Pulitzers, let alone landslide winners. For most of the past few decades, musical theater has been the redheaded stepchild of the American arts. Sure, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a catchy tune or two, but isn’t it, well, a little cheesy for an actor to stand in the center of the stage and belt out a power ballad to the back row? Isn’t musical theater by its very nature artificial and cloying, a sad relic of the '50s holding on well past its expiration date?

It usually takes something extraordinary for a musical to overcome that prevailing attitude, either a trick of timing or an artistic breakthrough or some combination of the two. Of the eight previous musicals to win Pulitzers, one (1932's Of Thee I Sing) was written by America’s most beloved musical-writing team, the Gershwins, well before the decline of the form. Three were written smack in the middle of the golden age of the American musical, when Rodgers and Hammerstein reigned supreme (South Pacific, 1950; Fiorello, 1960; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962).

Of the other four, one was crafted with the help of a revolutionary development and workshopping process (A Chorus Line, 1976, which directly cited a series of interviews with Broadway chorus dancers). One was by Stephen Sondheim, who is widely considered to be the greatest living composer and lyricist in the English-language musical theater tradition and is also widely credited with introducing an unprecedented psychological complexity to the American musical (Sunday in the Park with George, 1985). One was one of the first musicals to successfully marshal late-'80s rock into the musical theater tradition, and was also the only publicly performed work by a promising young talent before his untimely death (Rent, 1996).

And then were was Next to Normal.

Next to Normal's 2010 Pulitzer win was marked by controversy

A rock musical about a middle-class suburban family and its struggles with grief and mental illness, Next to Normal won the Pulitzer in 2010. This year marks the first time two musicals have won the Pulitzer within six years of each other since the one-two punch of Fiorello and How to Succeed in Business in 1960 and 1962, and that came at a time when musicals were beloved and vital forces in the world of American art. Is the same critical feeling beginning to reemerge? Do the victories of Hamilton and Next to Normal suggest we’re entering a new golden age of the American musical?

If that does turn out to be the case, it’s not an uncontested one. Next to Normal’s Pulitzer win was racked with controversy: It was not one of the three finalists chosen by the Pulitzer jury. They recommended instead The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. But the jury was overruled by the Pulitzer board.

It wasn’t an unprecedented move. The Pulitzer jury comprises a panel of experts, usually critics and artists, and it changes every year. There's one jury per prize category, and each one combs through every single entry in its category, winnowing down the choices to three finalists. The finalists are then submitted to the Pulitzer board, an 18-person committee primarily made up of journalists and academics; members serve three-year terms. The board members are under no obligation to limit their considerations to the jury's recommended finalists, and they don’t always do so.

In 2007, for example, the board overruled all of the drama jury’s finalists to give the prize to Rabbit Hole. And two years after the fateful choice to award the Pulitzer to Next to Normal, the board famously declined to choose any book at all for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a decision chronicled at length in a series of New Yorker articles. Less famously, it has exercised the option 15 times for the drama category — which means there have been more years in which no play was deemed worthy of the Pulitzer than there have been years in which a musical was considered Pulitzer-worthy.

Does Next to Normal's win mean that musicals are now respectably middlebrow?

Critics of the Pulitzers sometimes suggest that the board’s freedom to disregard the jury allows the board to ignore the experimental, avant garde, and exciting in favor of the safe and bland middlebrow. Next to Normal, the story goes, is more of the same. Charles McNulty, the 2010 chair of the Pulitzer drama jury and the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in a blistering column that the Pulitzer board had "ignored the advice of its drama jury in favor of its own sentiments," evidencing a "blinkered New York mentality." Unlike the highbrow plays the jury had recommended, Next to Normal was the sentimental choice. The middlebrow choice.

But for decades, awarding a Pulitzer to a musical wouldn’t have been a safe, respectable middlebrow choice. It would have been a lowbrow choice. Musicals were sentimental and hence artistically bankrupt. They were unrespectable and uninteresting.

For a musical to reach the kind of bourgeois respectability that accompanies a Pulitzer, even a controversial Pulitzer like Next to Normal’s, suggests that we are beginning to think and talk about musicals in a way that is entirely different from the way we used to. For a second musical to win the Pulitzer in a landslide victory only six years later suggests that this change is seismic.

It is, perhaps, the kind of change that comes with a new age of musical theater — perhaps even a new golden age in American musicals.