It’s obvious that a lot of affection went into Six by Sondheim, a new 90-minute documentary premiering tonight on HBO. The film, which offers a surprisingly intimate and candid look at the life and career of Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who also is an executive producer along with former New York Times drama critic (and longtime Sondheim acquaintance) Frank Rich.
That probably explains how this fascinating film so deftly manages to be both a warm valentine to one of America’s most important living artists as well as an insightful, even revelatory, look at both his personal and professional experiences, reflected in six of his songs.
Told mainly in Sondheim’s own voice, drawn from a variety of interviews over the decades, Six by Sondheim opens with a snippet from a 1977 conversation with Mike Douglas in which Sondheim discusses his fondness for writing about neurotic people.
“ ‘Neurotic’ is one of those fashionable words that to some people means ‘crazy.’ What it means is that everyone has problems. Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people,” he says. “I’m not interested in making people unhappy, but I’m (also) not interested in not looking at life.”
That’s no doubt why, although Sondheim has had his share of commercial disappointments on Broadway, the only show he has trouble defending in hindsight is Do I Hear a Waltz?, a perfectly pleasant 1965 musical on which he collaborated with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. It received polite reviews and offended no one, but ran only about half a year because it had “no passion, no blood, no reason to be,” he recalls.
The first of the six highlighted songs is “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, where Sondheim got his first big break writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s melodies. Although the song remains a favorite for Sondheim, he notes that the show itself was not very well received by many critics and audience members, who found the score insufficiently “hummable,” a charge that has dogged Sondheim throughout his career. (He notes drily that when the movie version of West Side Story became a box-office smash, suddenly everyone had no trouble humming the songs).
Sondheim identifies another spotlighted number, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, as his most autobiographical song, based loosely on his own experiences as he was trying to break into the theater world. Restaged here and performed by Darren Criss (Glee), Jeremy Jordan (Smash), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Laura Osnes (Broadway’s current revival of Cinderella), the catchy number also features a very clever cameo by the composer-lyricist himself.
Other segments are devoted to “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which remains Sondheim’s biggest hit song; “I’m Still Here,” an anthem of survival from Follies that Sondheim based in large part on Joan Crawford’s career; “Being Alive,” the closing ballad from Company; and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George, the song and show that Sondheim says are closest to his heart.
Six by Sondheim also finds Sondheim opening up about his strained relationship with a bitter divorced mother who regarded the birth of her only child as the biggest regret of her life (and sent him a handwritten, hand-delivered letter to that effect when he was 40), falling in love for the first time when he was 60 and why he regards teaching as “a holy profession.”
As we look at Sondheim over the years, we see him transform from the intense lone wolf of the 1970s, when he was still struggling to be taken seriously as a composer, to the Sondheim of today, at 83: happy in a long-term personal relationship, unapologetically proud of his life’s work and still trying to find new ways to push the limits of the American musical form. He wears contentment very well.