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Howard Sherman: Will winning a Pulitzer finally bring Cost of Living to Broadway?

Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams in The Cost of Living. Photo: Joan Marcus Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams in The Cost of Living. Photo: Joan Marcus
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When Martyna Majok’s play Cost of Living was announced as the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama earlier this week, audiences in the UK – and in much of the US – could be forgiven for not knowing the work being honoured.

The affecting, intertwined stories of two couples struggling to connect, two of whom have disabilities, had its world premiere in a two-week run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 2016 and debuted in New York in late spring 2017. There is currently no London production scheduled and it has yet to make its way widely into the regional theatre canon.

Presumably its profile will be raised by the prize and more opportunities will come its way, as is typically the case with Pulitzer recipients. However, unlike many Pulitzer winners, it’s not necessarily on track to receive a Tony nomination because, a year after its New York opening, no Broadway production has been announced. That said, the Pulitzers and Tonys often diverge.

The obvious factors for that are two-fold: the Tonys recognise work on Broadway only, which is not a criteria for the Pulitzer, and the Pulitzers are for US playwrights, not for international writing, and typically for plays with American themes.

As a result, Pulitzer winners such as Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, Annie Baker’s The Flick and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, Pulitzer prize-winners all, have never been eligible for Tonys, while such Tony favourites as Tom Stoppard, Yasmina Reza and Peter Shaffer have never been in contention for the Pulitzer.

Whether looking at the list of Pulitzer or Tony winners, what stands out most is that for the past 50 years, the overwhelming majority of winners originated in the not-for-profit or subsidised theatre sector. Whether they come from the Public, Playwrights Horizons, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Goodman, Manhattan Theatre Club or Yale Repertory Theatre in the US, or from the National Theatre or the Donmar Warehouse in London, or the Abbey in Dublin, the most honoured plays are born within non-commercial organisations.

That’s not to say that they don’t get transferred to commercial runs, in their own country or when they cross the Atlantic, but many of these works originated in companies that did not solely have to worry about ticket sales to fund the show. The last Tony winner to originate commercially was Reza’s God of Carnage in 2009. You have to look back to 1991 for the last Pulitzer with fully commercial roots, specifically Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.

Certainly no arts award process is foolproof – the Pulitzers intermittently decide to give no prize at all, somewhat disparagingly suggesting that no play in a given year meets the lofty criteria – but they all bring attention to works that may not always have been fully appreciated by critics or audiences. In that sense, when it comes to looking for new work worthy of the attention of literary managers and artistic directors, long lists, short lists and honorees all merit attention.

Whether Cost of Living plays Broadway or not, it demands multiple productions like those accorded other Pulitzer winners that preceded it, but which have remained in the repertoire of Off-Broadway, regional theatre and international companies. In addition to the three aforementioned, that cohort includes Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Margaret Edson’s Wit. They are all excellent, worthy works to which, quoting a 1949 Pulitzer-winner, attention must be paid. It has been.

One final note: Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women premiered in Vienna in 1991, reached Off-Broadway in 1994 and won that year’s Pulitzer. But only this year has it debuted on Broadway. So there’s always more life for good plays, even long after the glittering prizes have entered the history books.

This week in US theatre

This marks the final week of Tony Award eligibility, so it seems appropriate to race through the remaining contenders as they rush to the qualifying line.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, already setting box office records, opens Sunday in its two-part glory, featuring the same creative team and leading actors who launched it in London two years ago.

Monday brings the opening of Summer, a career retrospective of disco queen Donna Summer, directed by Des McAnuff, with three actresses playing the diva.

Patrick Marber’s Menier Chocolate Factory production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, with Tom Hollander and Peter McDonald reprising their roles, joined by Scarlett Strallen, opens Tuesday at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, with Condola Rashad in the title role under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, marks the play’s first Broadway appearance in 25 years. The Manhattan Theatre Club production opens Wednesday, and features Chicago director Walter Bobbie in his first acting role since the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls.

Denzel Washington takes on O’Neill’s haunted salesman Hickey in the marathon The Iceman Cometh, under the direction of George C Wolfe. With its Thursday night opening, the 2018-18 Broadway season is complete.

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