Countless words led to Stephen Sondheim receiving the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement Sunday, but some of the most difficult for him to write were also the simplest.
Looking relaxed on the Symphony Center stage in his olive-green polo shirt, tan pants and taupe jacket, the 81-year-old composer/lyricist said he wrestled particularly hard with the song "Maria" from "West Side Story," the 1957 Broadway show that launched him as a lyricist.
"The hardest thing to achieve (is) to make something simple without making it boring and dull," Sondheim said in his deep, muscular voice, noting that at this point in the story, protagonist Tony has only just met the woman of his dreams. "He doesn't even know her. What's he going to sing about?"
His solution, as every one of you now singing along in your head knows, was to base the song on her name. But it took much effort to get there.
"Sweat is what makes it work," Sondheim said. "You really have to sweat to make it simple."
Exerting much effort to achieve a seamless effect was a common theme among the writers being honored during the Chicago Humanities Festival on Sunday. Later in the day, authors Jonathan Franzen ("Freedom") and Isabel Wilkerson ("The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration") received the Tribune's Heartland Prizes for fiction and nonfiction, respectively, with Wilkerson relating that she interviewed more than 1,200 people to find her three protagonists and to tell the overarching narrative of 6 million African-Americans migrating northward and westward from the Deep South in the early- to mid-20th century.
With Sondheim, the push-pull between simplicity and complexity (or cleverness), detachment and vulnerability, words and music, and content and form were among the topics covered in his probing, good-humored conversation with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, who made the composer laugh with the telling of his own Sondheim-themed story about a wedding ceremony that had the bride strolling down the aisle following the song "Marry Me a Little."
Asked about the importance of hummable tunes, an area where some critics had found Sondheim lacking, the composer noted audience members were humming "A Weekend in the Country" from "A Little Night Music" as they exited the auditorium. "Why? Because they'd just heard 11 choruses of it," he said.
As for the knock on his lack of catchy tunes: "Those particular criticisms lessened over time. You have to outlive your critics."
Sondheim, who has written two books of his lyrics and reflections (the second, "Look, I Made a Hat," is due out Nov. 22), illustrated how the sing-song rhythm of a lyric can suggest a melody, and he stressed the importance of the opening line in a musical's opening number in setting up an audience's expectations.
Jones pressed him on whether his mother's apparent lack of love for him was a driving artistic force, but Sondheim responded, "If so, it's unconscious." As for whether he learned many life lessons from his mentor, lyricist/playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, the composer said, "I'm afraid my life lessons were taught to me by life."
Sondheim named "Porgy and Bess" as the No. 1 musical he'd take to a desert island. As for his own works, he put "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" atop his list "because it never, ever fails to make me laugh."
After the event, he set out to attend Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of his 1971 musical, "Follies."
At the UIC Forum, the Heartland winners spoke eloquently of the importance that Chicago played in their lives and works. Wilkerson, former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, noted that not far from this venue on Roosevelt Road (originally 12th Street), millions of people arrived from the South to Chicago's 12th Street train station. Ida Mae Gladney, who migrated from rural Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, became one of her book's subjects; Gladney's daughter and the daughter of another protagonist, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, were in Sunday's audience.
Franzen, who was born in Western Springs and grew up in the St. Louis area, recalled spending much time nearby in Pilsen and around Maxwell Street while visiting his contractor brother. Having moved to New York, Franzen said he found himself pondering the Midwest as an idea, one that his central "Freedom" character, Patty Berglund, chases as she flees the East Coast for St. Paul, Minn.
This notion of finding sanctuary in another place turned out to be a link between these two otherwise quite different books — that, and Wilkerson mentioning that "Freedom" was one of her book's many discarded titles.
Franzen, who has written nonfiction magazine articles, professed particular admiration for the amount of work that Wilkerson had to do in collecting enough material to tell her story.
"You have to be in command of so much that you're never going to use," Franzen said. "I have enormous respect for just the sheer labor involved, and it's invisible labor."
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