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'Next to Normal' wins Pulitzer Prize for drama

Updated: 2010-04-13 10:33

'Next to Normal' wins Pulitzer Prize for drama

NEW YORK – "Next to Normal," a musical about the complexity and heartbreak of a woman's mental illness and its effect on her family, has won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

"Everybody can relate to what we wrote about," Tom Kitt, the composer of "Next to Normal," said Monday. "Even though the score is based mostly in rock, I try to write emotional music for the appropriate moment."

Brian Yorkey, who wrote the show's book and lyrics, agreed.

"While I am really flattered when people say we have changed the form of musicals, I don't know if that is true. Certainly, the show is adventurous," Yorkey said. "But, ironically, the other side is that this is a show about real people and what they are going through, exploring their pains and also their joys on a level that musicals don't often do."

Paul Harding's "Tinkers," a debut novel released by the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, was the surprise fiction winner. Harding, who writes of an old New Englander looking back on his life, is the former drummer of Cold Water Flat, and started the book a decade ago while the band was on hiatus.

"I worked on it for five to six years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn't find an agent or a publisher," said Harding, who currently teaches at the University of Iowa.

A narrative about a 19th-century financial lord, T.J. Stiles' "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," was the biography winner.

"I worked on my book for about seven years and I had no idea it would be so timely when it was published," Stiles said. "I really asked about the nature of finance and the financial sector, the rise of corporations and the financial markets. I didn't just examine the life of my subject, but the underpinning of the rise of the financial sector and the corporate economy."

Another timely book, "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy," by David E. Hoffman, won for general nonfiction.

"My goal was to show the history of the end of the Cold War through both sides — the U.S. side and the Soviet side," said Hoffman, a contributing editor at The Washington Post. "I really felt that especially the Soviet side of the story hadn't been well told because we didn't know. A lot of the research was to dig into what they were really thinking and doing as opposed to what they were saying in propaganda."

A book about the financial crisis, Liaquat Ahamed's "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World," won for history. Ahamed said books about economic history tend to be dry, which made him want to tell the story by focusing it on the personal stories of the men.

"We obviously don't learn from history, because the current crisis is eerily similar to what happened in 1929," he said, although the lesson was learned on the other side with the government's swift response, which probably prevented another Depression.

A posthumous Special Citation was given to Hank Williams for his "craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life."

Williams died Jan. 1, 1953, at the age of 29, cutting short a career that forever changed country music. Hits such as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" have been rerecorded by hundreds of musicians and, more than 50 years after his death, he remains a central figure in country music.

Other winners announced by Columbia University on Monday were: "Versed," by Rae Armantrout, for poetry, and Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, for music.

Armantrout, 62, said she was half way through writing "Versed" when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. She said she did not know if she would live to see the end of her book — and never dreamed it would win a Pulitzer.

The first half of the book, published by Wesleyan University Press, focused on the dark forces gripping the United States as it went to war against Iraq. After she was diagnosed with adrenal cortical cancer in 2006, her poems looked at the dark forces taking hold of her own life.

The Pulitzer committee noted the book was striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.

"I love that. That's very flattering and exactly what I wanted it to be — a little thought bomb. It sounds dangerous," she said, laughing. Her cancer has been in remission since 2006.

For Higdon, it was the second major honor of the year. In January, she won a Grammy for best classical contemporary composition for her percussion concerto. Violin Concerto was written for violinist Hilary Hahn and debuted Feb. 8 in Indianapolis.

"I'm having kind of an unreal year," she joked later.

Higdon, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, describes the 30-minute concerto as "very American sounding. ... It's very much classic and very lyrical, and it shows off a lot of Hilary's talents, her incredible technical skills, her beautiful tone."

"Next to Normal" began life more than 10 years ago as a 10-minute musical, a class project for Yorkey and Kitt at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. One night, Yorkey was watching a television report on shock therapy or ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and was intrigued by something said on the program: The vast majority of patients who receive ECT are women and the majority of doctors who prescribe it are men.

Out of that idea, the show was born. It went through various incarnations, first in 2005 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), where it attracted the attention of producer David Stone, and then three years later at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre.

Stone, one of the producers of "Wicked," took the musical to Washington's Arena Stage for more reworking in November 2008 before bringing the show back to New York. The $4 million production opened at Broadway's Booth Theatre in April 2009, where it is still playing. It won three Tony Awards, including a best score prize for Yorkey and Kitt.

"Next to Normal" is the eighth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The first was "Of Thee I Sing" in 1932 and the last was "Rent" in 1996.