During more than 60 years on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim has had his work lauded, panned, emulated, analyzed and celebrated in concerts, shows and recordings.
With a variety of collaborators, he redefined how we think of the Broadway musical, bringing a different kind of emotional edge and intellectual study of the characters than what had preceded his arrival in the late 1950s.
Now we have a chance to further study Sondheim himself in a new HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday. It’s an attractive companion to his own look at his career in the books “Finishing the Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat.”
Produced by director James Lapine, who frequently works with Sondheim, and Frank Rich, the former New York Times critic who often championed his work, the show allows Sondheim to tell the story of his life and work, mostly via a half-century of interview clips.
It’s an often fascinating and occasionally frustrating film that focuses on six key songs that help to tell his story: “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” which marked his Broadway debut as a lyricist; “I’m Still Here” from “Follies”; “Send in the Clowns,” his biggest hit, from “A Little Night Music”; “Being Alive” from “Company”; “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park With George”; and “Opening Doors” from his short-lived “Merrily We Roll Along.”
After the first 20 minutes or so I wondered how viewers who don’t know much about Sondheim will react; the film doesn’t provide much of an overview or introduction to who he is at the start.
But it gets into some wonderful details that fans will relish, while letting us watch the composer tell his own story.
He talks in detail about the enormous impact of Oscar Hammerstein II on his young life. Hammerstein befriended the young Sondheim when they became neighbors and he encouraged his youthful passion for songwriting. Sondheim admits he would have emulated whatever Hammerstein’s career was.
It was Hammerstein who encouraged a reluctant Sondheim to work with composer Leonard Bernstein (and Jerome Robbins) on “West Side Story.” It would be an education. Sondheim wanted to write both words and music. And Hammerstein also encouraged him to team with composer Jule Styne on “Gypsy” to learn about writing a score for a specific performer, in this case, Ethel Merman. Sondheim originally expected to write both words and music for “Gypsy,” but he says that Merman was concerned about working with an untested composer after the failure of her last show “Happy Hunting.”
For the most part, we see clips of the original performers singing the songs, along with newly filmed versions, and stories that explain how they came into being.
“Something’s Coming” was written because it was decided a song was needed to explain Tony’s drive.
“I’m Still Here,” now a standard for singing actresses of a certain age, replaced the one-joke “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” providing the character of Carlotta with a strong statement of survival. The film features an offbeat take by Jarvis Crocker of the rock band Pulp.
Sondheim says he was surprised as anyone that everyone from Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra recorded “Send in the Clowns” because it seemed so specific to the show, at least in his mind. He writes about the characters the book writer created, he says.
“Send in the Clowns” was added to the score to give an extra song for the character of Desiree (and star Glynis Johns). He says it shifted the focus a bit of the show’s final scene. We hear a bit of Johns singing, along with a new rendition by Audra McDonald, accompanied by Will Swenson.
There is an extended clip of Dean Jones recording “Being Alive” from D.A. Pennebaker’s eye-opening film “Original Cast Album: Company” about the all-night recording session.
Sondheim describes “Opening Doors” as the only autobiographical song from his shows because it’s about him, and colleagues Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and others, trying to get heard in the 1950s.
It is an exuberant number about three fledgling writers trying to get their careers started. They decide to jump-start things by writing a revue that they’ll stage in a small club.
In two separate segments you see Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Laura Osnes singing the song, with Sondheim himself as a producer demanding some “hummable melodies.” (Jordan and Osnes were the stars of “Bonnie & Clyde” in Sarasota and on Broadway.)
The film also offers a brief glimpse of frequent Asolo Rep actor Bryan Torfeh at a master class that Sondheim led in London.
Fans will want more, but “Six by Sondheim” does provide a potent look at the composer’s view of his own work and life.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.