Early in December, a documentary called Six by Sondheim aired on HBO about the life and career of Stephen Sondheim. I watched it the other week thanks to my friend’s HBO GO login information. You know who you are. Thaaaanks!
What’s cool about this documentary is that most of it is made up of interviews with Sondheim himself. He’s never shied away from speaking to the media so the filmmakers were able to collect interviews spanning his career. These interviews are then presented through the framework of six Sondheim songs, the six songs that arguably best encapsulate his career. Within this structure, we move through his writing history as he shares anecdotes, stories about Oscar Hammerstein, what inspires him, his working habits, and from where these six songs stem. The songs are also performed throughout the documentary: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Being Alive” from Company, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.
Sondheim says some pretty wonderful things about composing, acting, and art as a whole. Several of the numbers are presented as mini-performances within the documentary, produced and performed by Broadway folks. A few felt a little over-produced in my opinion. The songs that were most effective were the ones with footage of the original companies (West Side Story, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George). For example, “Being Alive” from Company was a video of the very first Bobby, played by Dean Jones, in the studio recording the cast album. Now I know this song very, very well and have listened to it hundreds of times, but I sat there on my couch and just started crying. I love that a song can affect me in such a way even after all these years of listening to it.
So for the Sondheim fans out there, I do recommend a viewing. On second thought, even if you’re not a fan (seriously, what’s that about?), maybe this will be a good way for you to learn more about where he’s coming from with his writing. If anything, you’ll get a fascinating inside look at the man himself.
Six by Sondheim
Directed by James Lapine
Aired on HBO on December 9, 2013