Six By Sondheim

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 7, 2013

What are the three musicals where Sondheim rhymes "boring" with "ignoring"? These are the questions my friends and I ask each other. But you don't need to have a Sondheim obsession to be enraptured by HBO Documentaries Films' "Six by Sondeim" (premieres Monday, Dec. 9 at 9 pm.)

This fascinating retrospective is directed by none other than Stephen Sondheim's longtime collaborator James Lapine (Pulitzer Prize winning "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," and Tony Award winning "Passion").

Sondheim says he was ready to quit the theatre after the critical reception to "Merrily We Roll Along." He wanted to make movies, or write mystery novels or create video games -- anything but musicals. "I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that [did] not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me and hate Hal (Prince, major collaborator throughout the 1970s)." It was the avant-garde theatre of Lapine and the show "Sunday in the Park with George" that brought Sondheim back to the Great White Way.

The documentary examines Sondheim's life and career by looking at six of his songs. For instance, the sequence covering Sondheim's childhood and early career is mark by the performance of "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story" interpreted by Larry Kert (the first man to play Tony on Broadway) in a recording of his performance for television in the 1950s.

"Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along" is Sondheim's only autobiographical song. The sequence surrounding this song covers the early part of Sondheim's career as both a composer and lyricist. The staging of this musical number is completely filmic and produced specifically for this documentary. (In addition to performances from Darren Criss of "Glee" and America Ferrara of "Ugly Betty," you can expect a cameo from Sondheim himself, singing in this number.)

What makes this documentary unique is that it's made by people who know Sondheim. Legendary critic for The New York Times, Frank Rich, executive produced the show. (According to author Ted Chapin in the book "Everything Was Possible - The Birth of the Musical 'Follies,'" Rich was "the first person to predict the legendary status ["Follies"] eventually would achieve".)

One particular highlight of "Six by Sondheim" is Dean Jones singing "Being Alive" for the cast recording of "Company," a musical number preceding Sondheim talking about his first committed relationship.

This number was taken from a documentary of the event by the great filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker shortly after the show opened on Broadway. It's the only musical number that isn't interrupted by exposition, because Pennebaker made the whole sequence into a story of its own.

Sondheim announces that the song isn't working. He directs the cast and tells them they're going to need to do another take. Jones, reluctant and frustrated mumbles, "I don't know if I have another one in me." And a studio technician says, "I need you to practically swallow that microphone."

Jones is playing a character that the audience cannot see, so we listen to the character, Bobby, but we see Jones who is nervous that his performance won't be good enough. The cutaways to Sondheim aren't encouraging, but the cutaways to the cast are. In this song they coax Bobby to embark on his first committed relationship.

What follows has all the tension and power of the song "Being Alive" on one layer and the narrative of the recording of the song on another.

It's brilliant documentary filmmaking in this artfully produced memoir of a great artist.

Premieres Monday, Dec. 9, 9 p.m.