An award of $65,000 will be presented to an unproduced musical in honor of Adam Schlesinger, the songwriter and Fountains of Wayne co-founder who died from complications related to Covid-19 last year.
The award stems from a merger between the non-profit Building for the Arts and the American Playwriting Foundation, the latter of which is known for the annual Relentless Award presented to an unproduced play in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both Hoffman’s and Schlesinger’s awards will be named the Relentless, with each prize given to a musical and a play.
David Bar Katz, the American Playwriting Foundation’s founding artistic director, established the award in honor of Hoffman, who was his close friend. Days after the actor died in 2014, the National Enquirer published a false story claiming Hoffman and Katz were lovers who freebased cocaine on the night before his death. After successfully suing the tabloid for libel, the Enquirer retracted the article and Katz put the settlement money towards the Foundation and its award.
“I was struggling with the anger around that piece,” Katz tells Rolling Stone. “Adam reached out at that time knowing what I was dealing with. I was talking to [him] about not being able to take this money personally. It just doesn’t feel right. I said I want to do something for Phil, and Adam was one of the first people that loved the idea of something that’s not only a tribute, but actually extends legacy. That really resonated with him.”
The Schlesinger award is a continuation of the settlement money, as well as donations from those who knew him. Katz says the goal of the award is to give attention to musicals that may not have gotten it otherwise. “The dream scenario is people that aren’t necessarily already in the theater community, that aren’t already established, that are trying to figure out how do I break in and don’t know,” he says.
Katz was introduced to Building for the Arts’ president Wendy Rowden through Jeff Horwitz, the board chair of both organizations. The merger gives the American Playwriting Foundation a physical space, located at Theatre Row in Manhattan’s Theatre District.
“From our first lunch with David, there was immediate chemistry,” Rowden says. “We brainstormed about the many opportunities to work together. Theatre Row with its intimate performance spaces is the perfect home for American Playwriting Foundation. By blind submissions, APF’s history of selecting primarily women and people of color has always made the Relentless Award a standout.”
Submissions for the award open this month, while the winner will be announced in early 2022. A sub-committee will go through all submissions and narrow it down to eight musicals. The winner will be selected by a panel of judges who collaborated with Schlesinger. The judges include Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, who founded the supergroup Tinted Windows with the late musician; Rachel Bloom, the creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; songwriter Sam Hollander; David Javerbaum, who co-wrote Broadway’s Cry-Baby with Schlesinger; and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt.
Katz chose each judge with Schlesinger’s partner Alexis Morley. As with Hoffman’s award, Katz says the criteria will be articulated through Schlesinger’s sensibility. “You can imagine different people that know him in different ways, arguing about what Adam would like and not like when it comes down to these final choices and making the case for the different pieces,” he says.
“I have to say that his term ‘relentless’ is perfect for an award in Adam’s honor, because that’s exactly what he was,” Bloom says. “Whether it was how many projects he could take on at once, perfecting the music mix of a song until it was absolutely perfect, or wracking his brains for the perfect rhyme, he was just a relentless beast. [He] had such a huge hand in writing every song that appeared on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with music, lyrics, and production that I don’t even know where to begin. He just did…everything.”
“My fellow downtown art scenester invited me,” added Merritt. “Every time I judge something, I cause a huge fake scandal and get written up everywhere for being anti- something or other, so I look forward to another roller coaster ride through a meaningless controversy. Shall we begin? I always liked Ivy better than Fountains of Wayne. Shocked? You may send death threats c/o Rolling Stone.”
Katz finds it fitting that the award is named after both Hoffman and Schlesinger — he describes both of his late friends as creatively relentless in different ways. He fondly remembers a time when he introduced them to each other, giving Hoffman a run down of Schlesinger beforehand. “I told him we’d been buddies since college, he’s insanely talented, he can do anything,” Katz recalls. “I really spoke him up. And we had dinner and hung out, and then later that night, when I was walking Phil home, he turns to me and goes, ‘I didn’t think he was that great.'” Katz breaks out into a laugh: “He was jealous and he was making fun of himself. I was happy they met a few times.”
Since Schlesinger helped Katz develop the Relentless Award after Hoffman died, it’s easy to wonder what Schlesinger would have thought about being honored with his own prize. “I know his enthusiasm for the idea of getting some cash for some — as he put it — starving artists, because he knew what that was like,” Katz says. “I also know Adam being Adam, he’d make fun of it. He would totally be, ‘The Adam Schlesinger Musical Award!’ I could just see him thinking that it’s hilarious, because as serious an artist as he was, he did not take himself very seriously.”