"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, the same day that the Tribune's 2011 Heartland Prizes will be presented at the UIC Forum to Jonathan Franzen for fiction ("Freedom") and Isabel Wilkerson for nonfiction ("The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration").
"It's really a surprise, and I'm delighted," Sondheim said 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."
Franzen's "Freedom," released in August 2010 to great acclaim and eventually a Time magazine cover, is an ambitious, complex, provocative portrait of a troubled Midwestern family whose members struggle with their identities as they navigate their way between Minnesota and the East Coast. His previous novel, "The Corrections," which won the 2001 National Book Award for fiction, also focused on a dysfunctional family divided between the Midwest and the East Coast, as Franzen explores the interplay between image and reality in these two regions.
"I think particularly in 'Freedom' I was conscious of that word 'imaginary,' and for that main female character, Patty, who had a rough time, lost her innocence in a fairly brutal way on the East Coast, when she imagined remaking herself, starting over, going back to someplace more Edenic, that was the Upper Midwest: 'I'm going to go to Minnesota and reclaim my innocence,'" Franzen said from Santa Cruz, Calif., where he is staying for the summer. "It's a dynamic in people's minds, and the corresponding dynamic for the Midwesterners: 'I'm going to go to New York, and I'm going to lose my innocence. I'm going to harden myself. I'm going to be a more ambitious person.'"
Franzen, who said he has great memories of driving up to Chicago while growing up in St. Louis, admitted that he, like many writers, has a fraught relationship with awards ("a few people win, and everyone else feels like they lose"), but he was happy to win this one.
"The announcement of the Heartland Prize came out of the blue for me," Franzen said. "I was delighted because I have strong connections to Chicago, I always love going back there. It was very nice, if not life-changing for me at this point, and not having gotten it would also not have been life-changing. One grasps for a better word than 'nice' and fails to find one."
One of the three main people in Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," which previously won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is Ida Mae Gladney, who migrated from rural Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, so Wilkerson spent much time in Chicago doing research and seeing the city anew. She already was quite familiar with Chicago, having been The New York Times' Chicago bureau chief in the 1990s and winning a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the 1993 floods in the region.
"It is Chicago that has determined that this book deserves the Heartland Prize," Wilkerson said from Atlanta. "Chicago was so central to my career that it has special meaning for me personally."
She added that she was "over the moon" about winning the award. "It's an award that you dream of because it represents Midwestern sensibilities," she said. "It has this place among writers in the Midwest. It has a national reputation, but it has a special meaning in the Midwest."
"Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson demonstrate the power of a single book to reflect the great sweep of society," Kern said. "Capacious and bighearted, these works show how the printed page is a mirror to American society."
Last year's Literary Prize winner was Sam Shepard, and the Heartland Prizes went to Rebecca Skloot for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (nonfiction) and E.O. Wilson for "Anthill" (fiction).
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