A salute to Sondheim

Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013
In 1955, a 25-year-old composer named Stephen Sondheim got his big break when Leonard Bernstein, who had seen Sondheim’s first musical, “Saturday Night,” hired him to write the lyrics to a musical Bernstein was creating. That show was “West Side Story,” which debuted on Broadway in 1957, ran for more than 700 performances, and was made into a highly popular movie. Two years later, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for “Gypsy,” another Broadway hit. And by the 1960s, he was off on a stellar career as both composer and lyricist, writing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday In The Park With George” and “Into the Woods.”

Bernstein was honored with the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1987, and on Sunday, Sondheim will join his “West Side Story” collaborator when he accepts the 54th MacDowell medal. Sondheim will be the first MacDowell Medal recipient from the realm of musical theater.

The MacDowell Colony’s chairman, author Michael Chabon, will present the medal and Sondheim will speak at a public ceremony on the colony grounds on High Street, beginning at 12:15 p.m.

Chabon said he has been a “passionate fan and devoted disciple” of Sondheim since he first heard the composer’s “Pacific Overtures” at the age of 12.

“He is an American master,” Chabon said of Sondheim in an announcement of the award. “In his fearlessness, restlessness and focus on craft, in the way his work couples a strong sense of tradition with a need to break it down, he embodies completely the artistic spirit that MacDowell was created to foster, encourage and protect.”

Sondheim has won numerous awards over his long career. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for “Sunday In The Park With George” and an Oscar for best song in 1999 for “Sooner Or Later” from the film “Dick Tracy.” His works have received more than 60 individual and collaborative Tony awards, and on his 80th birthday in 2010, the Henry Miller’s Theatre in New York City’s theater district was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

“No artist has made a larger contribution to this quintessential American art form in the modern era than Sondheim,” said Frank Rich, chair of the Medal Selection Committee who will introduce Sondheim at Sunday’s ceremony.

Medal Day is the one day of the year when the MacDowell Colony grounds are open to the public. Visitors are welcome to bring picnic lunches and open studio tours, hosted by MacDowell artists-in-residence, will be held from 2 to 5 p.m.

On Saturday, Sondheim’s work will also be celebrated when pianist Anthony de Mare performs a program titled “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano” at 3 p.m. in the Peterborough Town House. The program is part of Monadnock Music’s summer festival presentations.

De Mare invited 36 leading jazz, classical, musical theater, pop, and film composers — including Steve Reich, Ricky Ian Gordon, William Bolcom, Jake Heggie and Fred Hersch — to re-imagine their favorite Sondheim songs as solo piano works in their own distinct styles.

“Sondheim was very engaged with the project,” Monadnock Music Artistic Director Gil Rose said recently. “The pieces are all quite varied. Some stick close to the original song, with others the connections are murkier.”

Among the 14 songs on de Mare’s program are Kenji Bunch’s interpretation of “The Demon Barber” from “Sweeney Todd,” Nico Muhly’s version of “Color and Light,” from “Sunday In The Park With George,” and Ethan Iverson’s adaptation of what is perhaps Sondheim’s best known song, “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.”

The multimedia program will also feature video interviews with the composers.

Tickets for de Mare’s performance are $27 or $10 for students.

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.