MacDowell Colony honors Stephen Sondheim

Union Leader Correspondent
August 11. 2013 7:30PM
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim accepts the Edward MacDowell Medal at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough Sunday. (MEGHAN PIERCE PHOTO)

PETERBOROUGH — The MacDowell Colony honored composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim Sunday with the 2013 Edward MacDowell Medal.

It is the first time the MacDowell Colony has honored an artist in the musical theater field.

"This is overdue, not only because of his extraordinary and still ongoing career, but also because musical theater is America's one major indigenous art form," said New York Times Writer-at-Large Frank Rich said, who introduced Sondheim.

Sondheim is the composer and lyricist of numerous musicals including "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," "Sweeney Todd," and "Into the Woods," which is currently being developed into a film by Walt Disney Studios.

He was the lyricist for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy." He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his 1984 musical "Sunday in the Park with George" and won an Oscar for Best Song of 1999 for "Sooner or Later" from "Dick Tracy.""You have to wonder where the American musical would be today with out Stephen Sondheim," Rich said. "The chronicle of the modern musical runs less then a century, and Steve's contributions have defined and dominated more than half of that span.

The first half of that history was arguably defined by Steve's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, the playwright and lyricist he met as a child through the happenstance that his mother was in Hammerstein's social circle."

Like his mentor, Sondheim has and continues to push the boundaries of the musical, elevating the art form, Rich said.

"This took not only talent and craft, but courage," Rich said.

Upon accepting the medal, 83-year-old Sondheim said he is humbled and privileged to be among the other recipients that include Robert Frost and his "West Side Story" collaborator Leonard Bernstein.

"I am not only humbled and privileged, I am astonished to be in the company. I am even more astonished to be the third oldest recipient. Only Georgia O'Keeffe and Chuck Jones were humbled and privileged later than I," he said to the laugh of the audience.

"Although I may be among the oldest of the medalists, I take genuine pride in being the first to represent the former runt of the arts, musical comedy."

Adding he did mean to say musical comedy, which the genre was originally know as. It is known today as musical theater mostly because of the dramatic and experimental efforts of Hammerstein, especially in "Oklahoma," "Carousel" and "Show Boat," Sondheim said.

"I would like to accept this award on behalf of Oscar and all of his descendants who made the category possible, including myself," he said.

Sondheim said he had never been to MacDowell before, but said he has tenuous connection to composer Edward MacDowell.

MacDowell's piece "To a Wild Rose" was one of the first pieces Sondheim learned to play on the piano when he first started playing at the age of 11.

The Medal Day festivities attracted nearly 2,000 people to the art colony on High Street Sunday afternoon.

Husband and wife composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell established the art colony in 1907.

Medal Day is the one day of the year the 106-year-old art colony is open to the public.Sondheim is the 54th recipient of the award that has been given annually since 1960.

After the award ceremony, visitors picnicked on the colony grounds.

Afterward, the 32 artist studios scattered around the 450-acre property were opened up to the visitors for tours and visits with current artists in residence.In a world full of distractions, "MacDowell gives artists uninterrupted time to think deeply," said Executive Director Cheryl A. Young during the ceremony. "The MacDowell solution removes distractions, giving the artist time to pause and think and in that process the art that they make shifts and when we participate in that art our ideas shift."


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