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The most celebrated of contemporary American musical theater composers by a massive margin, Stephen Sondheim has been the subject of extensive tributes during the past decade on the occasion of his 75th and then 80th birthdays. The recent publication of his collected lyrics in two volumes brought another wave of attention. Ditto every new entry in a steady stream of revues and major Broadway revivals of his classic shows. So it’s unexpected that despite a subject not exactly neglected of late, HBO’s engrossing feature-length documentary Six by Sondheim should feel so fresh, insightful and deeply personal.
That’s partly attributable to the intimate access of its creative team. Director James Lapine has been a key collaborator on such shows as Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion; he also executive produced the documentary with Frank Rich, the former New York Times theater critic who has been a longtime friend and champion of Sondheim’s. (An exec producer on Veep, Rich set up this project at HBO as part of his deal with the cable network.)
But the documentary also is notable because it takes risks. Instead of the usual parade of laudatory talking heads and career-summation bullet points, this is a tirelessly inquisitive collage of perspectives unconstricted by chronology. Ostensibly focusing on the impulses behind six milestone songs from the composer-lyricist’s canon, it provides by extension an illuminating and surprisingly candid overview of his life and work, embracing failures as well as triumphs.
Daringly, the film contains an element likely to have some of the die-hard Sondheim faithful sputtering with rage – an inspired musical interlude directed by Todd Haynes and gorgeously shot by Ed Lachman. One of three specially filmed song stagings, “I’m Still Here” from Follies is performed by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker as a seedy lounge act before an audience of weary glamour-pusses, some fading, others closer to embalmed. Given that this showbiz survivor anthem has been belted out by every grizzled musical diva on the planet, reconceiving it as a vehicle to mine the pathos of the people hearing it rather than the one singing it was a ballsy touch of genius.
The other five songs whose genesis and creation are scrutinized in detail are “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.
Each song reflects a specific moment in Sondheim’s emergence as a preeminent artist in his field. “Something’s Coming” serves to illustrate the importance of collaboration, written in a day by the 25-year-old lyricist with composer Leonard Bernstein to address a specific shortcoming in the way the male romantic lead Tony was registering. The song is performed with soaring conviction by original castmember Larry Kert in a 1958 TV clip.
The autobiographical “Opening Doors” provides a glimpse of the struggle for recognition as three fledgling musical-theater writers sing of their efforts to break into legitimate show business. Lapine films the song as a retro-styled Technicolor movie-musical insert, using split-screen and rear projection to capture the bright lights of Broadway and the dizzying heights of New York. As the green kids with stars in their eyes, Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan are as cute as a box of puppies (see video preview), getting an able hand from Broadway regulars Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes as auditioning performers. The chief delight here, however, is Sondheim himself, winking at the audience in an extended singing cameo as a cynical producer.
The other newly filmed interlude is “Send in the Clowns,” a sober moment of rueful character introspection that became Sondheim’s most widely recorded hit. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the song is delivered as a torchy ballad by the luscious-voiced Audra McDonald, accompanied by her husband, Will Swenson, on acoustic guitar. Shot in a lighting warehouse, it’s simple and beautiful.
Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive” has been lifted (and remastered) from D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Company: Original Cast Album. Deftly contextualized by Lapine and editor Miky Wolf, the song acquires a searing emotional impact that prompted a spontaneous applause outbreak during the MoMA premiere of Six by Sondheim. For “Sunday,” Lapine also sticks to existing material, visually enhancing the stirring vocals of Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and the original company with digital elaboration of the Georges Seurat painting that inspired the musical. That song, with its rapt description of the infinite possibilities presented to an artist by a blank canvas, also is a tremendously moving note on which to end the film.
Lapine is expanding and improving here on a formula he adopted in the 2010 Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim, which primarily entrusts the composer to speak for himself. This time, however, the subject reflects not just with hindsight but also as his career is evolving, via conversations taken from various decades with interviewers including Diane Sawyer, Mike Douglas, David Frost, Larry King, Andre Previn, Tony Kushner and Adam Guettel.
A jigsaw graphic is occasionally incorporated, which fits not only with Sondheim’s well-known fascination for puzzles but also with the approach adopted by Lapine in examining his subject’s achievements and impact. The wealth of archival material collected — much of it taken from television in the days before Broadway shows were regularly filmed for library use — is extraordinary. One fun touch is a YouTube montage of “Send in the Clowns” performances, spanning from the smooth (Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand) through the tender (Carol Burnett and Judi Dench) to the campy (Cher and Patti LaBelle), the latter hilariously mangling the song with her vocal grandstanding.
The affecting arc that emerges takes Sondheim from pupil to teacher. He found refuge from his unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with his divorced mother by becoming a surrogate son, and eventually, an apprentice to Oscar Hammerstein II. Much later on in the journey, Sondheim is shown giving master classes to conservatory students in London.
To longtime fans, much of this material and many of the anecdotes will be familiar. But folded together in this wide-ranging assembly they make for an emotional appreciation of a singular artist. And given the circumspect attitude toward love evinced in so many Sondheim songs, it’s touching to hear him open up about his own feelings. That applies whether it’s his first serious relationship at age 60, or his profound affection for and gratitude to his late mentor Hammerstein, memories of whom still bring tears to his eyes.
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