‘Next to Normal’ wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama

April 12, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

UPDATED — 3:20 p.m. April 12, 2010

The musical “Next to Normal” — a daring look into bipolar disorder penned by Issaquah native Brian Yorkey and nurtured at Village Theatre — has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The prize jury lauded the edgy, dysfunctional-family-drama as “a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.” The jury announced the award Monday.

Yorkey — a former Village Theatre associate artistic director and Issaquah High School alumnus — will share the honor with writing partner Tom Kitt. Yorkey wrote the lyrics; Kitt wrote the music. The duo will share a $10,000 prize.

Village Theatre Executive Producer Robb Hunt received word about the Pulitzer while on a bus to the Newark, N.J., airport.

“Next to Normal” attracted attention for the way the musical approached mental illness, “a very tough thing to tackle in this place, and to have it debut on Broadway and continue to run on Broadway is significant,” he said.

Hunt had traveled to New York City, where another production fostered at the Issaquah theater — the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet” — had opened on Broadway the night before and received a sterling review in The New York Times the same day as the Pulitzer announcement.

The award elevates “Next to Normal” into the same pantheon as past honorees “Rent” and “Lost in Yonkers” — a production Yorkey returned to Issaquah to direct in January.

The latest honor also marked another upset for the musical. “Next to Normal” surprised industry watchers last year when the musical beat juggernaut “Billy Eliot” to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score. “Next to Normal” also nabbed Tonys for best orchestrations and best actress in a musical.

Yorkey said the blockbuster “Rent” — about the specter of AIDS in the Reagan era — laid the foundation for a musical like “Next to Normal.”

“I don’t think there’s a ‘Next to Normal’ on Broadway without ‘Rent’ — and not just because Michael Greif directed both of them,” he said in a January interview before “Lost in Yonkers” opened. “As you know, ‘Rent’ brought a language to Broadway and a musical language that had really not been present before that.”

Yorkey recalled how the Tonys for “Next to Normal” brought attention to Village Theatre. Hunt said the Pulitzer could burnish the reputation of the Issaquah theater and, possibly, boost fundraising for the nonprofit theater.

“Sometimes I think Village Theatre is better known outside of the area than it is around the area,” Yorkey said. “Certainly folks in Issaquah and the Eastside know Village really well, but I don’t know that everyone knows how much Village does. But certainly when you talk to writers —musical theater writers, musical theater people around the country — they’re really aware of it.”

Yorkey joined KIDSTAGE as a teenager, long before Village Theatre attracted national accolades. The young Yorkey acted in a handful of productions, and then turned to writing. Yorkey returned to theater later and served as associate artistic director for six years. He credited colleagues there for helping him remain focused amid the showbiz hustle.

“The great thing about being home is, you’re with family, and I think of the folks here as my family,” Yorkey said in the interview. “The great thing about family is, they never let you get too big for your britches, just as much as they’re there to pick you up when you’re down.”

The inaugural national tour of “Next to Normal” will land at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle next February.

“I think Seattle is a very smart and savvy theater town, but I think it Seattle audiences are open to experiences, they’re open to hear and see new things, and give stuff a chance,” Yorkey said. “That’s one of the things that keeps me coming back here.”

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