Every year, preparing to write these lifetime achievement award citations, I read bios and interviews with our honoree, I make lists of my favorite lines and lyrics. But I also think about the idea of lifetime achievement, about what it is. Is it the lifetime we’re honoring – the stamina required to do something as hard as writing for the theatre your whole life, or is it the achievement – the artistry, the grace, the power or the glory of a body of work. And some years it’s more the art than the artist, sometimes it’s more artist than art. But this year, honoring Steve Sondheim, it’s something else altogether, Steve is something bigger than a brave man or a brilliant lyricist and composer. Something other. In another category.
The US Patent Office has a name for this category. They call it the unanticipated patent, a device which appears fully formed, with nothing coming before it, no other design that anticipated its appearance. There are only a handful of these in patent office history, among them the phonograph, the air brake, and oddly enough, the zipper. But they are inventions which changed the world around them, their inventors people who simply reimagined our lives and never looked back.
This is the realm where Steve Sondheim belongs. He is not the descendant of those who came before him, not the perfector of a pre-existing form. Steve has made something entirely new every time, a work we could not have anticipated, even though we all saw the last one. With each show, Steve has given us an experience we didn’t know we needed, then didn’t see how we could have gone on without. Steve has rethought what it is to sing, made a new list of what there is to sing about, and written those songs…in these musicals –
Saturday Night, West Side Story, Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz?, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, Bounce, and The Frogs.
Somewhere in his youth, I guess, Steve drew a line in the sand, stepped over it, and dared the rest of the musical theatre world to come with him. What was that line? He could say it better but I will try. Life is not simple, says Steve. And neither are songs. We are loved and loathed by the same people, whom we love and loathe in return. We will kill to be loved, we will love if it kills us, we are both alone and not alone at all. We are valiant and vain, ashamed and awestruck, daring and dull, now and forever. We won’t change. Still he is interested in us, and has spent his lifetime writing about us, studying us, like that hat, from Sunday in the Park. Steve has spent his life, as it says in this lyric from Sunday in the Park with George,
Studying the hat
Entering the world of the hat
Reaching through the world of the hat like a window
Back to this one, from that.
Am I saying that Steve sees us all as hats? Well yes. But if Steve is writing about about me, I’m happy to be a hat. And everybody feels this way. People have been so moved by Steve’s work that not only have they opened some 87,000 Sondheim productions worldwide in the last ten years, but they have flooded his publisher with letters about their experiences. Tonight, in conjunction with our award, Music Theatre International is presenting Steve with a scrapbook containing some of the thousands of letters they have received from people touched by his work, people who needed to thank Steve for the way his work that saw them though whatever it was, for saying better than they ever could, exactly how they felt. The book that John Weidman will give Steve in a minute, is this scrapbook of letters from Freddie Gershon, president of MTI.
While Steve was writing his shows, he also served as President of the Dramatists Guild for 6 years (?) and created the Young Playwrights Festival to identify and encourage promising young writers. Lately he has strolled the halls of Congress on behalf of the Guild’s initiative there, and helped young composers stand firm against the for hire contracts that threaten Broadway as we know it.
In Sweeney Todd there is a lyric of Steve’s that goes through my head all the time. It is the question at the very heart of these lifetime achievement awards. It goes
How can you remain,
staring at the rain,
maddened by the bars?
How is it you sing anything?
How is it you sing?
We at the Guild, his colleagues and friends, the people who know best how hard musicals are, we will never know how Steve sings, or what it costs him. But we take tonight to thank him for his wisdom, his courage, his inimitable wit and his staggering generosity. Another lyric of his tells us this is simply our “moment in the woods, shimmering and lovely and sad.” But we are glad for it, and it is with deep gratitude that The Dramatists Guild of America presents its Lifetime Achievement Award to the unanticipated, incomparable Stephen Sondheim.