2017 Literary Gala: Stephen Sondheim, PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award
Stephen Sondheim has delighted audiences worldwide for more than six decades with witty lyrics, contagious melodies, and unforgettable characters that comprise some of America’s most beloved and timeless musicals such as West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. Paying forward the mentorship of Oscar Hammerstein II that catalyzed his successful career, Sondheim dedicates much of his time to nurturing young writers and composers, including Jonathan Larson (Rent), Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). In 1981, he also founded Young Playwrights Inc., the only organization of its kind committed to the development of aspiring playwrights under age 18. Below are his full remarks from the 2017 PEN Literary Gala, including an introduction by the actress Meryl Streep.
Meryl Streep: Thank you very much, as an actress in a room of great writers, I feel like a pilot fish on a whale, so I apologize Stephen in advance. In 2014, in the film version of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim gave me the opportunity to unleash my inner bitch—my inner witch, sorry. But it was actually the second time we had worked together.
Forty years before, in 1974, when many of you were in utero, or just an idea, I was a first-year at Yale as a student, and I was cast in the chorus of Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Aristophanes’s The Frogs. This production was mounted in the Yale gym, partly in and partly out of the pool—also, partly in and partly out of tune, because of the acoustics, splashing, and chlorine up the nose. Chorine choked by chlorine – that was my own review of my work in The Frogs. Anyway, Sondheim was already a god in the theater, and I was Meryl Streep with a P, as in Peter, not a T, which I said every time to the operator, but anyway.
So, four decades later Disney gave us a chance, another chance in Into the Woods, and I was very, very, very, very, very excited. I was, (sings) “Excited and Scared” (that’s an inside joke) because Mr. Sondheim had written a song for me, a new song for this film, and he had invited the director, Rob Marshall, and the writer, James Lapine, and me to hear it for the first time. So we all went to his amazing home in town and he sat at the piano surrounded by the memorabilia of his storied life in the theater, and he played and sang this beautiful song, “She’ll Be Back,” for us. And It was really a moment that I will cherish my whole life. Everybody was moved, and just before we left, I worked up the nerve to ask him if I could have the sheet music, and if he would, you know, sign it. So, he nodded, and he picked up a beautiful Montblanc pen, and scrawled his name and a little added salutation.
So we ran out into the cab and Rob Marshall said, “What did he write, what did he write??” and I un-scrolled the music and read: “Don’t fuck it up. – Steve.” That’s sort of the pressure I’m feeling tonight, paying tribute to The Master.
There are not enough superlatives to do justice to Sondheim’s talent and his life’s work. He has already won nearly every award that exists in every category you can imagine, many times over. But, it’s hard not to see special meaning in Stephen receiving this award, this year. Because his imagination has provided a soundtrack for a half century of American life, challenging and elevating our uniquely American art form, the American musical. And when we debate whether and how to hold onto the America we know and love, we are thinking of the America that Stephen Sondheim has revealed to us. A place that’s vibrant, expressive, dissonant and dramatic, moral/immoral, yearning, despairing, fanciful, and always, funny. An America that’s far from ideal— but that grapples with its flaws earnestly, if imperfectly. A place that’s empathic to the vulnerable and broken, honest. That America, Sondheim’s America, is at stake as we gather tonight. Because the truth, the arts, the standards, the honor, and freedom that Stephen Sondheim has embodied in his work, and his life, are at the forefront of the struggle that PEN and all of us now engage in, trying to steady a ship of state that feels as if it’s tipped pretty weirdly all to one side.
So the PEN/Allen Foundation Award is for literary service, it’s for writers who advance causes beyond themselves. And Stephen is a devoted member of PEN America, and an exemplar of everything the organization stands for. For instance, in 1992, Stephen received a letter from (the first) President Bush, Bush 41, notifying him that he was to receive the prestigious National Medal of Arts, conferred by the National Endowment for the Arts. And then, two days later, the Endowment overturned two previously approved grants on its rolls. Why? Because they included graphic depictions of sexual organs, and images that the NEA said “did not measure up” to its standards nor took into account “the concerns of the taxpayer … and Congress.” It’s interesting to think about what graphic depictions of sexual organs would measure up to the NEA, the Congress, and taxpayers…that’s kinda fun – fun to think about. So, Stephen wrote back to President Bush and he said, under the circumstances, “it would be an act of utmost hypocrisy” to accept the Medal of Arts. He was hardly indifferent to the role of the NEA, he was writing fondly of his experiences working with an organization “devoted to American arts and artists” and “noble in intent and clear of purpose.” “But,” he wrote, it had “become a victim of its own and others’ political infighting, and was being transformed into a conduit, and a symbol, of censorship and repression.”
Stephen Sondheim has described art as “an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” He has used his art to order the chaos of our moment in time. He has refused to allow his art to be enlisted in service of suppression of others. He has stood up for creative freedom and, thereby, for all of us. PEN America’s mission is to use art as an antidote to chaos, mobilizing writers and artists to defend the liberties that are at the beating heart of a civilized and open society. So, for these reasons, it’s my great honor to present the lion-hearted Stephen Sondheim with PEN America’s PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award.
Stephen Sondheim: Thank you, thank you very much. You thought that was an actress? That’s a writer. When I first heard that I was to receive this award, I was not only honored, but startled. I write songs for musicals, for God’s sake—musicals, the runt of the arts. Not poems, not novels, not essays, not works of history, songs.
But then I thought: If institutions of higher learning now not only offer courses in the subject but have entire departments devoted to musical theater, if you can sign up for Cole Porter 101-102, if Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize, maybe it’s okay to take musicals seriously. But not too seriously. But then I thought: According to the guidelines, the PEN/Allen Award is supposed to go to “an author whose work embodies PEN America’s mission to oppose repression in any form and to champion the best of humanity.” Well, I’ve made a few passive political gestures, like turning down a medal or like writing the score for a show about America’s gunboat diplomacy in the nineteenth century, but unlike some of this award’s recipients, I can’t say that A Little Night Music or Follies has helped to oppose repression or champion humanity.
But then I thought: There are other repressions besides political ones. There’s the repression of imagination fostered by parents who don’t understand or teachers who aren’t interested. That’s why I and some other writers at the Dramatists Guild started the Young Playwrights Festival over 30 years ago—a competition open to writers 18 years and younger from every state in the country, and their winning plays get professional productions Off-Broadway.
And that’s where PEN comes in: an organization that defends freedom of thought and expression. Young people here need that freedom just as much as oppressed writers in other countries, only in a different way. So maybe this award isn’t quite as startling as I thought, if I can share it with my cohorts over the years at Young Playwrights. I’m also glad you like my songs. Thank you.