Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.
This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.
Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how magic happens. What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.
In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over
Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?
At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man. I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.
“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/six-by-sondheim# for more information.