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Peterborough

Musical theater takes a bow

MacDowell Medal Day: 2,000 people turn out for Stephen Sondheim’s big day

  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Presentation speaker Frank Rich, a Writer-at-Large for New York Magazine, and former drama critic for the New York Times, spoke of the impact Stephen Sondheim has had on musical theater during the Edward MacDowell Medal Day Ceremony. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Stephen Sondheim accepts the MacDowell Medal during Medal Day on Sunday.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

Every year, the MacDowell Colony awards the Edward MacDowell Medal to an artist who has made outstanding contributions to his or her field. Until this year, it had never been given to a contributor to the world of musical theater. When considering giants of the musical theater world, Stephen Sondheim, who has contributed 50 years worth of beloved music and lyrics to the genre, is the obvious choice.

Most people are first introduced to Sondheim’s work with some of his earliest contributions to the field — his lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” But his body of work extends well beyond that. He is the composer and lyricist of some of the classics of the genre, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Assassins” and “Follies.” His “Sunday in the Park with George” netted him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for in 1985, and he won a Oscar for Best Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from the 1990 film “Dick Tracy.” Not to mention that musicals with his music and lyrics have won more than 60 Tony Awards.

As a testament to Sondheim’s influence and popularity, on Sunday, when the MacDowell Colony opened its doors to the community for Medal Day, thousands turned out from all over the state and beyond to hear Sondheim speak and enjoy a picnic on the grounds, as well as tour 32 studios of colony artists in residence.

“You have to wonder where the American musical would be without Stephen Sondheim,” said Frank Rich — a New York Times Writer-at-Large and former critic and friend of Sondheim’s — at Sunday’s ceremony to a crowd of 2,000 people. “Steve is the first recipient, as you’ve heard, to be honored for achievements in musical theater. This is overdue, not only because of his extraordinary ongoing career, but also because musical theater is one of America’s pivotal indigenous art forms. Indeed, the American musical is representative of American culture at large. It crossbreeds the high and the low, the tragic and the ridiculous. It reflects every racial, ethnic and immigrant component of the great melting pot. At its best, there is nothing else like the American musical.”

It was not long ago, Sondheim told the crowd during his acceptance speech, that musical theater wasn’t even considered a genre, much less an art form. The New York City native credited his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, for kick-starting the process of turning musical comedy into musical theater. It was a process continued by the next generation, he said, but it was really during his own generation that the transformation was fully realized, he said. Sondheim said that while he was astonished to be considered among the recipients of the Edward MacDowell Medal, he was also proud to be the first to accept it, in what was once the “runt” of the art world.

“The transformation became certain when institutions of higher learning began offering courses in the subject,” Sondheim said. “And I don’t mean those hyper-contemporary institutions, which offer such subjects as contract bridge and waterskiing,” he joked. “No, I mean, respectable, not to say venerable, centers of education, like Yale and Princeton, Dartmouth and Northwestern, which not only offer courses but have entire departments devoted to musical theater.”

Rich also gave credit to Hammerstein for pushing the boundaries of “musical comedy,” as the genre was once known, to become musical theater and a genre in it’s own right. It’s the same kind of pushing and experimentation that Sondheim has contributed to the field, he said.

“This took not only talent and craft, but courage,” Rich said.

Sunday was the first time he has been to the MacDowell Colony, said Sondheim, although he does have a connection with the colony’s creator, and the person for whom the Edward MacDowell Medal is named. While a young man in a military boarding school, one of the highlights of the experience was playing the large organ the school had available, said Sondheim, mostly because he liked to play with the colorful stops on the instrument. And the first song he learned to play on it was Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose.”.

“Which I loved not because it was so beautiful, but because it was easy to play,” laughed Sondheim.

Sondheim accepted the medal on behalf of Hammerstein and all of those who came after him whose work created the musical theater genre, including himself.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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