On December 11, in a mellow ceremony on the second floor of New York's Algonquin Hotel, Stephen Sondheim was awarded the third annual Japan Musical Award, honoring his achievements in musical theatre, as well as his depiction of Japanese culture in American musicals.
Sondheim composed Pacific Overtures, a 1977 musical about the effect of American culture on 19th century Japan, and beyond.
It's only fitting that Sondheim take the prize, since the previous two Award winners were Sondheim-connected: Chita Rivera (who appeared in West Side Story), and Hal Prince, who directed Sweeney Todd and other Sondheim musicals on Broadway. Winners are selected by a panel of 12 actors, critics and theatre writers from Japan.
Eastern and Western cultures certainly felt like an odd mix going into the ceremony, as reporters and guests were greeted by a Japanese woman in a kimono. To the left was a small, mirrored boardroom, where prototypical Japanese businessmen in suits and ties sat at a large table and chatted with Sondheim, before emerging to begin the ceremony. For background music, the cast album of Company was gently piped in throughout the floor.
The actual event started late due to the late arrival of special guest Bernadette Peters, who was to introduce the composer/lyricist. Peters appeared on Broadway in two Sondheim shows, Into The Woods and Sunday In The Park With George, and earlier this week performed a three-hour concert in New York, the second half of which was nearly all Sondheim. Opening proceedings was columnist Patrick Pacheco (Playbill On-Line, Newsday), who praised Sondheim's "wit, passion and economy as a lyricist." He then quoted producer Scott Rudin (Passion) who said of Sondheim, "His greatest bravery is getting up every morning and going to the piano. After all he's done, yet still putting himself on the line. That's courageous."
A number of panelists then made short speeches, with managing director of the Japan Musical Award Committee, Kazuto Ohira, lauding "the humanity of Sondheim's message," and Tadahiko Maeda, of the Toho Music Corporation, presenting the composer with a squat but imposing statue of a Japanese warrior.
Mitsuaki Kojima, Acting Consul General Of Japan, provided the interesting historical context that the film version of West Side Story was hugely influential in Japan 35 years ago. "College girls were all debating, Richard Beymer or George Chakiris," Kojima told the amused attendees. More seriously, he pointed to that film as the basis for the enormous popularity of American musicals in Japan. Sadahei Kusumoto, of Minolta Corporation, evening's most quotable mot, "What people call `Globalization' is really the Americanization of the world."
To further the mutual exchange of art and commerce, a representative of Northwest Airlines presented Sondheim with a round-trip ticket to Tokyo (after noting that the composer hadn't been in Japan since he visited the country with Hal Prince in 1975, to do research for Pacific Overtures.)
Other rewards were a large silver bowl, and two checks for $5,000 each. One check was presented to Brett W. Reynolds of Young Playwrights Inc., a not-for-profit organization strongly supported by Sondheim. Reynolds told Playbill On-Line that although YPI ceased its long-running annual Young Playwrights Festival earlier this year, there are hopes the event -- which gives full productions to four plays by dramatists under age 18 -- will resume in spring 1997.
Sporting a conservative, black pants suit and her trademark red tresses and crinkly smile, Bernadette Peters took the stage and said this of her friend and colleague: "Singing his songs is very, very fulfilling. I can't begin to tell you how much I've learned about life singing Sondheim songs. He's a lovely and most talented man."
Sondheim, smiling, low-key and relaxed, his gray beard quite filled out, told the crowd he was "touched and moved" by the occasion, and was especially proud of the award to Young Playwrights. He spoke very briefly about the clash of cultures and its semi-resolution as depicted in Pacific Overtures (which he wrote with John Weidman) and hoped this event would only further mutual cultural growth for America and Japan.
For news about Sondheim/Weidman's latest project, Wise Guys, please see Playbill On-Line's story, "Sondheim Talks About Wise Guys at Algonquin."
--By David Lefkowitz Twelve Japanese theatre critics and theatre professionals, led by Kazuto Ohira, managing director of the Japan Musical Award Committee, chose Sondheim for the award.
Bernadette Peters, who starred as Dot in Sunday In The Park With George and as the Witch in Into The Woods, will present the award to the composer at a cocktail reception at New York's Algonquin Hotel, Dec. 11. The award is given to honor outstanding achievement on Broadway, and the development and growth of the Japanese musical industry.
Ohira, producer of musicals in both New York and Japan, said of the event, "Mr. Sondheim has been an artist whose integrity and professional excellence have consistently challenged and expanded the possibilities of the Broadway musical. His 1976 work, Pacific Overtures...was an exhilarating display which treated Japanese culture and history with respect and sensitivity. He has many fans and admirers in Japan, where A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday In The Park With George...have been presented. We are pleased to acknowledge his contribution to popularizing the American musical in Japan."
Sondheim will receive a silver Tiffany bowl and a $10,000 honorarium, half of which goes to a non-profit organization of the composer's choice. Sondheim has earmarked his gift for Young Playwrights, Inc., who recently ended their annual Young Playwrights Festival.
-- By David Lefkowitz