"Writing" seems an inadequate word to describe what Stephen Sondheim has done, yet it is the breadth, impact and influence of his writing that have won him the 2011 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.
The 81-year-old composer and lyricist will be honored at the Chicago Humanities Festival at Symphony Center on Nov. 6.
One week before he is due to accept the award in Chicago, Sondheim is scheduled to make a rare one-night appearance at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The Oct. 29 program is billed "Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation."
The musical theater legend will be appearing on the local stage with host Michael A. Kerker, of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Broadway performers Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell will play classics from the Sondheim songbook, accompanied by Tedd Firth, according to a news release from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
"It's really a surprise, and I'm delighted," Sondheim said about the Chicago honor on the phone from New York.
"With the literary prizes, we celebrate the written word and the power of literature to transform lives and have an impact on society," said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern. "Each of the authors we honor this year has had a powerful influence on America."
These award winners certainly are an accomplished group.
Sondheim has won a Pulitzer Prize for drama ("Sunday in the Park With George," 1985), an Academy Award for best song ("Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from "Dick Tracy," 1990), eight Grammy Awards and eight Tony Awards, including one in 2008 for lifetime achievement in the theater. He wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music for "West Side Story," which opened on Broadway in 1957 and became a 1961 Academy Award best picture winner. He also was the lyricist on "Gypsy" (1959) and wrote the music and lyrics for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962), two more smash hits.
His output grew in musical and lyrical sophistication through such major works as "Company" (1970), "Follies" (1971), "A Little Night Music" (which spawned "Send in the Clowns," 1973), "Sweeney Todd" (1979), "Sunday in the Park With George" (1984), "Into the Woods" (1987) and "Assassins" (1990). His most recent all-new musical, "Bounce" (later reworked as "Road Show"), had its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 2004.
Last year saw the release of his acclaimed book "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes." The follow-up, "Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) With Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Wafflings, Diversions and Anecdotes," is due out in November. With his name almost synonymous with the modern American musical, a Broadway theater was renamed in his honor last year.
Sondheim said he is particularly pleased to be receiving an award celebrating writing.
"The idea that lyrics could be taken seriously is obviously something I appreciate and believe in," he said. "Lyric writing is a very difficult thing, and when people pay attention to such an arcane art in a kind of cottage industry, it's really terrific."
"Stephen Sondheim is a giant in the world of American letters," Kern said. "With his magical lyrics, he has captured the American experience — from the inner-city battles to immigrant experience. He has also spoken to the universality of the human experience with his meditations on love, evil and the gamut of human emotions."
Said Tribune theater critic Chris Jones: "I think if you look at Sondheim specifically as a writer, a lyricist for the theater without a living peer, a core of themes emerge. Through his lyrics, we invariably learn that teaching, parenting and loving are sacred acts, even if we neurotic urbanites usually fail to do them well. The other main lesson is that, to paraphrase the incomparable Sondheim himself, the only two things worth leaving on this earth after we die are children and art."
If You Go
What: "Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation"
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: Reneé and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Admission: Tickets, which start at $35, will go on sale Sept. 25.
Phone: (714) 556-2787