The Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton” earned the Pulitzer Prize drama award Monday, as was widely expected. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about America’s Founding Fathers (particularly championing Alexander Hamilton) has been a phenomenon for more than a year, thanks to its fresh style and ebullient approach to history.
“Hamilton” was masterminded by writer-composer-star Miranda, the son of a New York political consultant and the writer-composer-star of the 2008 Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Miranda originally conceived the project as a hip-hop mix tape inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. But the song he tried out at the White House in 2009 turned into the opening number for what has been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in August. Miranda returned to the White House last month, this time with the full cast.
The Pulitzer Prize for music went to Henry Threadgill, 72, long regarded as one of the most significant and hard-to-categorize avant-garde jazz composers, for his recording “In for a Penny, In for a Pound,” the latest installment in his ongoing attempt — with his band, Zooid — to deconstruct jazz, melding improvisation and composition into a distinctive new whole.
The fiction winner was Viet Thanh Nguyen for his debut novel “The Sympathizer,” a cerebral thriller that opens during the panic of the fall of Saigon. It follows the life of a Viet Cong spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army and flees to the United States with a high-ranking general. From there, the unnamed narrator continues to report back to his masters while living a double life in California. A new classic of war fiction, “The Sympathizer” comes to us as a long confession written and rewritten many times in an isolation cell.
Nguyen was 4 when his family fled the approaching North Vietnamese army and came to the United States, so that story reflects, to a certain degree, his own experiences as an immigrant. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
The history prize went to T.J. Stiles for “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” while William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” won in the biography/autobiography category. The poetry winner was Peter Balakian for “Ozone Journal.” “Custer’s Trials” was submitted in the biography/autobiography category, but was moved by the Pulitzer board to the history category.
Stiles’s book reclaims the infamous 19th-century general from the butt of jokes and shows what a complicated and talented, if doomed, man he really was. “Custer’s Trials” also captures the dramatic tension between the modern society that was quickly developing on the East Coast and the wild territory that still existed in the West. This year, Stiles told The Washington Post: “Custer is a well-worn subject, but the wear is extremely uneven — mostly on the western side of his story. I wanted to write about him as a man on a frontier in time, immersed in the greatest changes America has ever experienced. I also wanted to foreground the women in his life, who brought the great issues of the day into his household.”
Monday’s win is Stiles’s second Pulitzer; he won the 2010 biography prize, along with a National Book Award, for “The First Tycoon,” about the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
“Hamilton” originally debuted at the Public Theater off-Broadway in January 2015, but despite immediate acclaim — or rather, because of the general confidence that the creators and producers had in the show — it did not rush to Broadway in time for last year’s Tony Awards. Monday’s Pulitzer win will likely inaugurate a whole new season of honors for Miranda, with the Tony nominations set for May 3 and “Hamilton” poised to dominate. The cast album has already won a Grammy, and last year Miranda was named a MacArthur fellow.
The revelation of “Hamilton” is how easily Miranda’s hip-hop rhymes work like a verse-driven Shakespearean history, and how profoundly audiences have responded to seeing performers of color portraying the country’s white founders. Miranda consulted with Chernow and aimed to keep his story respectably true to history, even as he rendered Cabinet battles involving Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson as intensely rhymed rap showdowns.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is showing us the way,” Post critic Peter Marks wrote when the Public’s production opened to critics. “Drawing on such varied influences as rap, pop, jazz and Broadway standards — and the vocabularies of Tupac Shakur, the Beatles and Gilbert and Sullivan — ‘Hamilton’ is as smart about music as it is about the American Revolution.”
Musicals have earned the Pulitzer numerous times since “Of Thee I Sing” in 1932, although once a decade seems to be the rate. The most recent musicals to win are “Next to Normal” (2010), “Rent” (1996), “Sunday in the Park With George” (1985) and “A Chorus Line” (1976). About every 10 years, and three times in the 1960s, the Pulitzer board has declined to bestow the drama prize at all.
In a statement, Miranda said: “To be the 9th musical to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in its almost 100 year history is truly humbling for all of us.”
Ron Charles and Anne Midgette contributed to this report.