Tag Archives: Richard Rodgers

‘Six by Sondheim’ an affectionate master class

'Six by Sondheim' celebrates the life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim (second from left) is flanked by performers America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes at the New York premiere of ‘Six by Sondheim.’


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.
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At 70, you’re still doin’ fine, ‘Oklahoma!’

'Great Performances' presents an encore telecast of its 2003 presentation of 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!,' with Hugh Jackman as Curly.

Hugh Jackman (Curly), Maureen Lipman (Aunt Eller) and Josefina Gabrielle (Laurey) star in a ‘Great Performances’ encore telecast of ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!’


As Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marks the 70th anniversary this year of its Broadway premiere, tonight Great Performances offers a very welcome encore presentation (in high definition for the first time) of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed staging of the show, which first aired on PBS in 2003.
Hugh Jackman heads the mostly British cast as Curly, the role that propelled him to international stardom after Nunn’s production opened at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1998. Still largely unknown at the time outside his native Australia, Jackman quickly had female theatergoers swooning, with The London Daily Telegraph describing the actor as “6 feet, 3 inches of perfect tanned cowboy.”
Yet this well-received production, which transferred to Broadway in 2002, was no mere star vehicle. Oklahoma! was widely regarded as little more than a quaint and charming period piece when Nunn began pondering his revival. After all, the plot mostly revolves around the burning question of which boy a pretty young girl is going to let take her to a picnic.
Nunn, however, recognized conflict and complexity in the show’s homespun characters, especially when it came to Jud Fry, the lonely and inarticulate hired hand vying with Curly for the attentions of Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle), the show’s heroine. Over the years since Oklahoma! premiered, Jud had become a stock villain, someone who existed only to pose a threat to Curly and Laurey’s happiness. In Nunn’s revival, the character gained a new, almost tragic stature through the casting of American actor Shuler Hensley, whose shattering performance earned him an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in New York. It helped that Nunn also restored Jud’s often-cut solo, “Lonely Room,” near the end of Act One, a number that chillingly underscored Jud’s obsession with Laurey.
Probably the most controversial change that Nunn made, however, was his decision to hire five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman to reconceive Agnes DeMille’s legendary choreography, which previously had been considered a production element as integral to Oklahoma! as the music of Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Stroman’s revisions included rethinking one of DeMille’s career masterpieces, the dream ballet for Laurey that climaxes Act One, in which DeMille had dancers doubling for the singers playing Laurey and Curly. In Jackman and Gabrielle, however, Stroman was blessed to have two singers who were accomplished dancers, a strength she exploited in a dance number that combines romantic lyricism and chilling violence.
As I recently rewatched this Oklahoma!, I was surprised to note that it clocks in at close to three hours, although it certainly doesn’t feel long. Anthony Ward, who also designed the costumes, came up with a spare but evocative set that emphasizes seemingly vast stretches of space, suggesting both a dreamscape and the sweeping plains of the Oklahoma territory at the start of the 20th century. It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that the score contains one Broadway standard after another, from Curly’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to the love duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” and Ado Annie’s comic complaint “I Cain’t Say No.”
Oklahoma! may have been the first true masterwork from the Broadway dream team that also would give us South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music, but as Nunn and company remind us, this 1943 musical still has a bracing freshness and power to surprise us after all these years.
Josefina Gabrielle and Hugh Jackman are pioneer lovers Laurey and Curly in 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!' on PBS.

Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and Curly (Hugh Jackman) sing ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ from ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!,’ airing tonight on ‘Great Performances.’