How many household names endure for centuries? Not so many. Shakespeare. Beethoven. Michelangelo. Mozart. What do they all have in common? They are all great artists. So who alive today might fit that category? My assertion is that the best bet is the theater’s most celebrated living composer, Stephen Sondheim.
If you don’t know his name you know his work. With shows like “West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Into the Woods,” — songs like “Send in the Clowns,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Not a Day Goes By,” and so many more – no living artist is more globally represented from Broadway and London’s West End to every high school theater department. It is hard to imagine that one writer could have earned eight Tony Awards for theater, eight Grammy Awards for music, an Academy Award for film, a Lifetime Achievement Award for theater, a Pulitzer Prize and, America’s Presidential award, a Kennedy Center honor.
Several months ago the thought occurred, given his extraordinary accomplishments, given the well-catalogued influence of early American Jewish culture on theater — and based on the potential for his work and his name to be known worldwide in centuries to come — that in his golden years Stephen Sondheim should be bestowed with a prize from the Jewish state.
The Jewish state chose to differ.
Or, to be precise, some unknown committee advising the President of that state saw it differently.
That, of course, is their right. But my gripe is not just with the decision, but with the opacity of the process.
Anyone can nominate someone for Israel’s President’s Award. The nominator must complete application form, gather recommendations from four unrelated parties, produce eight copies of each, and to submit the package to the Office of the President. And so that is the procedure I followed, and I officially nominated Stephen Sondheim for Israel’s President’s Award. Although the application questions were more worth of the motor vehicle bureau than the President’s office, I dutifully completed it, and submitted some additional supporting material of my own.
But the highlight of the packet was not the dry responses demanded by the formal application, but the inspiring sentiments that were glowingly forthcoming from some of the most extraordinary individuals imaginable. Those writing the endorsements spanned the panoply of Jewish life.
The man who wrote the lyrics to “Fiddler on the Roof,” and someone notably more senior in years than Israel’s President, Sheldon Harnick said of Sondheim, “I can attest that he is not only a remarkable artist but a remarkable human being.”
Mandy Patinkin, the star of stage and screen who has performed Sondheim’s work on Broadway wrote, “For me, Stephen Sondheim is the Shakespeare of our time….Stephen Sondheim is one of the wisest sages who has ever lived….His words are my Torah… He embodies everything I wish for the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Joe Lieberman, who served three decades in the United States Senate and was the first Jewish candidate for national office wrote, “Stephen Sondheim has singlehandedly reinvented the great American institution known as musical theater, to which American Jews have so prolifically contributed.”
Finally, author and Israel’s most recent Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren had this to say: “Stephen Sondheim is widely acclaimed as a modern Mozart and should be recognized as such by Israel.”
Copies were made and bound, and the application was hand-delivered to the President’s doorstep. Acknowledgement was not forthcoming, and it took effort just to be certain the package had reached its proper destination. Information on the process was not forthcoming at all. There was a committee, I was told. Who is on the committee? That’s apparently classified information. Is there an ability to interact with the committee, to plead the case face-to-face, to respond to questions or concerns? No, there is no such process. Phone calls were made. The committee will meet next month. In a few more weeks. Perhaps next week. And then one day the response becomes, “We sent you a letter.” But I didn’t see it. “You will get it in the mail.” You sent it by regular mail? Well please tell me the outcome. “No.” And predictably the outcome was rejection. That rejection came in the form of a two-line note. It gave no information on what process may or may not have occurred. It gave no explanation as to why the secret committee concluded as it did. It showed no appreciation for the effort of the application, let alone any acknowledgement of the time taken by such distinguished individuals who wrote recommendations.
The Jewish diaspora is often described by Israeli officials as a source of great pride and strength. Efforts are made to reach out to the diaspora, to foster interchange between individuals and institutions. How genuine is this feeling on the part of the government of Israel? When Israel deliberately declines to award one of the diaspora’s most accomplished individuals — and when it does so in a process that lacks any transparency or accountability – one is left to wonder.
Perhaps no one has devoted a greater measure of his life to advancing the interests of the State of Israel, and to relations between her and the diaspora, than its esteemed outgoing President. It would be a fitting legacy for him, in his waning months in office, to reform the process of recognizing greatness in the Jewish diaspora. At a minimum, applicants deserve a process with transparency and integrity that is worthy of the honor sought.