NEW YORK—New York’s literary community gathered Tuesday night at the 2017 PEN America Literary Gala to honor master composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Macmillan CEO John Sargent, The Women’s March, and imprisoned Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for their contributions and sacrifice in defense of free expression.

Beneath the famed blue whale of the American Museum of Natural History’s Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, guests enjoyed what felt like intimate dinner parties, hosted at each table by literary celebrities including Ayad Akhtar, Alan Cumming, Rita Dove, Masha Gessen, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith.

Academy Award-winning Actress Meryl Streep, who starred in the 2014 film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, presented the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award to Sondheim.

“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,” said Streep. “A place that’s vibrant, expressive, dissonant, and dramatic, moral/immoral, yearning, despairing, fanciful, and always, funny. An America that is far from ideal—that grapples with its flaws earnestly, if imperfectly. An America that is empathic, mindful of the vulnerable and broken, honest. That America, Sondheim’s America, is at stake as we gather tonight. Because the truth, the arts, the standards, 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.”

Toni and James C. Goodale presented the 2017 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to The Women’s March, accepted by co-chair Bob Bland. The Award celebrated and honored the role Bland, and her fellow national co-chairs—social justice and civil rights leaders Tamika D. MalloryCarmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour—along with a dynamic, powerful, and diverse group of national organizers, played in driving a contemporary resistance movement that inspired millions. Bland appeared on stage in a red “pussy hat” matching her red dress, proclaiming, “This is a very unique opportunity to be at the forefront of leading and birthing some healing in this nation.”

The 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoring imprisoned Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was presented by Peter and Pamela Barbey to Sentsov’s cousin Natalya Kaplan. Sentsov, an outspoken critic of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and takeover of Crimea, is serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony after his arrest on terrorism charges, which have been condemned by human rights groups as fabrications by a Russian government intent on silencing dissent.

Reading a letter from Sentsov, acclaimed actor Alan Cumming said, “The last time I went to the Maidan, where people had already begun perishing, my mother said, “Why are you going there? You have two children!” I answered that it was precisely because of that that I was going there—I don’t want them to live in a country of slaves.”

New to the 2017 Gala, PEN America welcomed Christie’s auctioneer, Robbie Gordy, for a paddle raise to bid on a First American Edition of George Orwell’s 1984 signed by Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Audra McDonald, other special guests and the literary hosts, which sold for $28,000. The total amount raised by the annual gala topped $2 million, a new record for the gala, a critical fundraiser which ensures that PEN America can continue its mission year-round to support freedom of expression in the creative community both in the U.S. and abroad.

Photographs & Video

High-resolution photographs from the evening are available at

Videos from the evening are available at


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Sarah Edkins, Director for Communications: +1 646-779-4830,
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