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'Hamilton' wins a Pulitzer Prize

When "Hamilton" begins performances in Chicago on Sept. 27, it will do so as the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The coronation of the hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda — announced Monday afternoon with the year's honors in arts, letters and journalism — is hardly a surprise.

No work of drama created during the 2015-2016 season has been more popular or critically acclaimed. There have been other years when the Pulitzer Prize for drama widely was regarded as a foregone conclusion — including 2008, when Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" won the prize. But few, if any, works of dramatic writing have so dominated their peers during their year of creation, and passed so rapidly and thoroughly into the popular zeitgeist.

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Moreover, the descriptor of the Pulitzer Prize in the field references "a distinguished drama" that is "dealing with American life." "Hamilton," which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, not only deals with American life, it deals with the very foundation of American life. Although "Hamilton" is often a humorous and even an insouciant piece, it has been so embraced by the Washington establishment — from those who hold down the job of Treasury Secretary that Hamilton largely created, to the president of the United States himself — that the gravitas of the work is unassailable.

One of the two finalists for the Pulitzer this year, Stephen Karam's "The Humans" had its premiere at the American Theater Company in Chicago. The other finalist was "Gloria" by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Musicals that win the prize are relatively rare, not least because the form is dominated by works of adaptation, and the Pulitzers privilege work "preferably original in its source." The last musical to win the award was "Next to Normal" in 2010 — before that was "Rent" in 1995.

"Hamilton" does have a source in the 2004 Hamilton biography penned by Ron Chernow, but the Miranda work is inarguably original in style, content, form, attitude and gravitas.

Pulitzers are awarded for the work itself — in this case, the book, music and lyrics — not for the production of the work, which is being directed on Broadway by Thomas Kail.

Most Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas enjoy a bounce at the box office, assuming they remain in production when the prize is announced. In the case of "Hamilton," which remains the hottest theater ticket in the world, any such bounce will likely be almost indistinguishable from the seemingly unstoppable flood of kudos, journalistic analyses and news hooks — all of which likely will reach a bigger crescendo when the Tony Awards are announced in June.

To say that "Hamilton" is the favorite to storm the Tonys is a bit like saying King George III was slow on the uptake when it came to all-American revolution.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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