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How Much Impact Does a Pulitzer Prize Have?

As Take Me Out's Pulitzer loss causes talk about the show's future, Filichia weighs the import of the prize. logo

Longing for the Pulitzer that got away:
Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I was surprised to hear so many theater enthusiasts in the last few days say, "Well, now that Take Me Out didn't win the Pulitzer Prize, it sure isn't going to get that boost at the box-office." For I say that the days are long gone when a Pulitzer win resulted in significant ticket sales.

It's true that, once upon a time, a Pulitzer did fill seats -- but that was when the nation was informed through newspapers and radio, and the Pulitzers got their share of ink and air. Even in the '50s, the prize packed a wallop because media attention was still centered on it and the Tonys were the new kid on the block. What's more, the Antoinette Perry Awards, to use their official name, were insular affairs held solely for chosen few members of the theater community, often on a Sunday at the Waldorf-Astoria, without much media coverage.

But, unlike the Pulitzers, the Tonys had television ambitions. Granted, the first time they were televised (in 1956), they were on the Dumont network, the least-watched web and one that would soon go out of business. Three years would pass before they were again on television and then only in New York -- at 11:15pm, yet, which made them the Not Ready for Prime Time Awards. The Tonys kept that time-slot until 1964, when they finally snagged an 8pm airing -- but, again, only on one New York channel. Not until 1967 did they reach a national audience.

And that has made a tremendous difference. We always hear that the Tonys don't draw terrific ratings, but there are still more people watching the show on that Sunday night in June than there are people listening to their radios on that Tuesday afternoon in April. If the Pulitzers were bestowed in prime time on national TV, then the prize might make for a box-office bonanza. But I can't picture an erudite Pulitzer presenter on TV saying, "And the winner is...Diana K. Sugg of the Baltimore Sun for Beat Reporting! Come on up and get it, Diana!" Nor do I hear Ms. Sugg giving a breathless acceptance speech wherein she speedily thanks her journalism professors, editors, and copy-editors until the impatient orchestra starts playing "Good Morning, Baltimore."

A look at the runs of Pulitzer winners vs. Tony winners since the latter awards went on national TV suggests that the newer theatrical award now has more impact than the older one. Both awards have gone to the same show on 10 occasions, so we can't cite any differences there: The Great White Hope (1969), That Championship Season (1973), A Chorus Line (1976), The Shadow Box (1977), Fences (1987), The Heidi Chronicles (1989), Lost in Yonkers (1991), Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993), Rent (1996), and Proof (2001). (A footnote on Rent: While it liked the prestige of the Pulitzer and advertised it rather than its Tony win in the ABC ads, it was the show itself and the media sensation involving the tragic death of its author that really sold the property.)

Nor can we count the years when the Pulitzers came too late to help business -- which has happened only twice, and both times to Edward Albee. In 1967, his A Delicate Balance won the Pulitzer after its 132-performance run had ended. And in 1975, his Seascape shuttered after 63 performances, long before that golden Tuesday in April. Yet note that, in the first instance, the Tony-winning The Homecoming ran 324 performances -- the vast majority after winning the prize -- and, in the second instance, the Tony-winning play Equus ran 1,209 performances. (Both of these were British plays and therefore ineligible for the Pulitzer, which only acknowledges American works.)

Every now and then, there's a year when no Pulitzer is awarded for drama; but there's always been a Tony winner, no matter how putrid the quality of the plays. The British Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead wouldn't have been eligible in the Pulitzer-less 1968, but Sticks and Bones (1972), The River Niger (1974), I'm Not Rappaport (1986), and The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997) were all Pulitzer-eligible. The committee passed on them and everything else, yet all had decent runs at least, and I say that getting the Tony on that annual glorified infomercial was at least somewhat responsible for their longevity.

Here are a few of the dramas that have
taken home the prize over the years
Sometimes, a Pulitzer play is ineligible for a Tony because the prize goes to an Off-Broadway entry. So, while in 1970 the Pulitzer's No Place To Be Somebody had a 252-performance run Off-Broadway and Tony's Borstal Boy managed 143 on Broadway, let's keep the smaller-house/larger-house statistics in mind. That was also the case in 1982 (A Soldier's Play, 468; Nicholas Nickleby, 49), 1988 (Driving Miss Daisy, 1,195; M. Butterfly, 777), 1994 (Three Tall Women, 582; Angels in America: Perestroika, 217), 1999 (Wit, 545; Side Man, 517), and 2000 (Dinner with Friends, 654, Copenhagen, 326). But I wouldn't be surprised if some of these Broadway productions actually played to more theatergoers than their Off-Broadway counterparts, thanks to bigger houses. That was certainly the case with three Off-Broadway Pulitzer winners that ran shorter than Broadway Tony winners, in 1971 (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, 819; Sleuth, 1,222) 1979 (Buried Child, 152; The Elephant Man, 916), and 1998 (Art, 600; How I Learned to Drive, 400).

But we can make a definite case that the remaining 10 examples -- in which each Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award went to productions that played Broadway -- work wildly in favor of the televised Tony winner. Two Pulitzer winners, in fact, should have had an edge because they could advertise "Winner! Pulitzer Prize!" before the shows came to Broadway, for each of them had won for their regional theater productions. Yet The Kentucky Cycle ran 33 performances in 1992, while that year's Tony winner, Dancing at Lughnasa, amassed 421. Three years later, The Young Man From Atlanta won the 1995 Pulitzer, but could only manage 84 performances when it came in, while the 1995 Tony winner -- Love! Valour! Compassion! -- ran 248.

The remaining eight saw the Pulitzer winner (which I'll name first each time) running fewer performances than the Tony winner in seven instances: 1978 (The Gin Game, 517; Da, 697), 1980 (Talley's Folly, 286; Children of a Lesser God, 887), 1981 (Crimes of the Heart, 535; Amadeus, 1,181), 1983 ('Night, Mother, 388; Torch Song Trilogy, 1,222), 1984 (Glengarry Glen Ross, 378; The Real Thing, 566); 1985 (Sunday in the Park With George, 540 -- and because it's a musical, let's compare it with that year's Tony winning musical: La Cage aux Folles, 1,761), 2001 (Topdog/Underdog, 144; The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, 309). Only once, in 1990, did the Pulitzer winner, The Piano Lesson, run longer (328) than the Tony winner, The Grapes of Wrath (188). So the grand total for the 10 is 3,233 for the Pulitzers and 7,480 for the Tonys -- a more than two-to-one average.

Of course, TV exposure isn't the only reason why Tony winners run longer than Pulitzer winners. The Tonys, after all, tend to favor works of commerce more than works of art, which are presumably the province of the Pulitzers. Nevertheless, I don't think that Take Me Out's perilously low grosses would have been greatly improved by a Pulitzer. Here's hoping that it wins the Tony and gets that needed boost.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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