Legendary Composer Stephen Sondheim Will Be Honored at PEN America's Literary Gala

By: Feb. 08, 2017
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Master composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim will receive the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award at PEN America's annual Literary Gala on April 25 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Actress Meryl Streep, who starred in the 2014 film adaptation of Sondheim's Into the Woods, will present the prize.

PEN America, the country's largest writer-driven free expression advocacy organization, confers the Literary Service Award annually to a critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition, engendering empathy and imagination in even the darkest hours. As new threats to the creative community have arisen both around the world and particularly in the United States in recent months, Sondheim and other artists and writers--including previous winners J.K. Rowling, Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood--have spoken out across genre and art form to resist threats to artistic innovation, freedom of movement, and the right to dissent.

Stephen Sondheim has delighted audiences worldwide for more than six decades with witty lyrics, contagious melodies, and unforgettable characters that comprise some of America's most beloved and timeless musicals such as West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, which opens in its Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal on February 11. He is also the winner of at least 60 individual and collaborative Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paying forward the mentorship of Oscar Hammerstein II that catalyzed his successful career, Sondheim dedicates much of his time to nurturing young writers and composers, including Jonathan Larson (Rent), Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). In 1981, he also founded Young Playwrights Inc., the only organization of its kind committed to the development of aspiring playwrights under age 18.

"Stephen Sondheim's oeuvre is profoundly literary in its elegiac reaching for the truth of who we are, how we love, and how we strive to locate meaning in our work," said author Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America. "He will be the first composer-lyricist to receive this award, which recognizes his nuanced insight into human character. His support for a new generation of writers makes him a literary citizen of the first order.²

PEN America will also honor John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishers. As both a publisher and children's book author, Sargent is a fierce advocate of the right to publish and a defender of publishers' and authors' intellectual property rights. A publisher's publisher, Sargent is venerated throughout the industry as a stalwart of the values and dedication that undergird contemporary American literature. Sargent is also active in many other social causes, serving on the boards of New York foster care agency Graham Windham and the Ocean Conservancy.

"A pillar of the publishing world, John Sargent personally embodies the intellectual rigor, integrity, and public-mindedness that make publishing a noble profession," said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. "His leadership in the industry has served editors, writers, readers, and booksellers alike, bolstering the strength of our community for more than three decades."

In the coming weeks, PEN America will announce the recipients of two additional awards to be presented at the April 25 Literary Gala. The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award shines the global spotlight on an imprisoned writer or creative artist persecuted for exercising his or her right to free expression. Previous winners include Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo; Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji; and Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, established in 2015, will recognize an individual or organization that embodies courage in self-expression. Previous winners include the surviving staff of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and Flint, Michigan, water activists Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Lee-Anne Walters.

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. Visit PEN.org.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride