Overview: Since his Broadway debut at age 27 as the lyricist for “West Side Story,” Stephen Sondheim has redefined musical theatre over the course of a six-decade career through such groundbreaking works as “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” Directed by Tony Award-winner and frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, SIX BY SONDHEIM is a highly personal profile of a great American artist as revealed through the creation and performance of six of his iconic songs. Told primarily in Sondheim’s own words, this feature documentary weaves together dozens of interviews with the composer, rarely seen archival material spanning more than half a century (including newly discovered footage of Ethel Merman performing “Gypsy”) and re-stagings of three songs produced especially for the film.
Stephen Sondheim has now written music and lyrics for more than 20 shows. This documentary takes a look at the journey and the process.
Expectations: A little confession to start. Out of all the films presented in this Fall Documentary Series SIX BY SONDHEIM, the last documentary in the lineup ranked real low on the list of interested subjects to review. That being the case I have not really spent extra time thinking about it or what I hoped to take away from it. Now that it has arrived it is time to address it.
I am not totally clueless to the subject matter by any means. I am aware of the composer/lyricist and most of his body of work, though I have never seen a professionally staged work of his. If I hope for anything out of this it is just a better understanding of his process and to enjoy the assembled footage, both the archived and the new, that accompanies the film.
Gut Reaction: If you were not familiar with his work or a fan/participant of musical theatre I am not sure what would gravitate you to this documentary. It definitely is for those in the know. The historical facts and footage can be enjoyed by anyone, but the talk of his genius and the process and even the importance of the particular songs singled out here can seem dry and boring to those not attuned to it.
Also Mr. Sondheim kind of thinks and talks like he writes or I guess, really that would be the other way around – he pens his songs like he verbalizes. He is wordy, rambling and sometimes quite convoluted yet, he thinks he is clear and concise. Have you ever tried to follow along with the themes and words of some of his songs? Just observe the segment that stages the Opening Doors number from “Merrily We Roll Along” to illustrate what I mean.
Though some of the archival footage did prove to be a treat like the Yvonne De Carlo and Dean Jones sections the interview moments were kind of brusque. All of the interviews were with Sondheim himself. He talks through the circumstances that brought about the six songs showcased in the film, and recreated in new footage by the likes of Darrin Criss and Audra McDonald, but hearing him talk about his process over and over left me bored. I would have liked to have seen some other personalities try to put a definition to his genius, relate a story of working on a Sondheim show or something else to illustrate his impact on the world of musical theatre. If this work were more like WHOOPI GOLDBERG PRESENTS MOMS MABLEY I think I would have enjoyed it better.
In Conclusion: It proved an interesting enough documentary, though, for me, not a strong finish to the fall series. I was left still not clear on his creative process but entertained by the musical performances within. His contributions and this documentary may not be for everyone but it is an undeniable look at musical genius at work.
Other HBO airdates include 12.12 at 9:30am & 6:30pm; 12.15 at11:45am; 12.17 at 12:30am; 12.20 at 10:45am; 12.23 at 10:15am and 12.28 at 6:05am. It is also on HBO2 and HBOGo.
In Conclusion to the Fall Documentary Series: It was a blast taking a look at all the documentaries for HBOWatch. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Documentary Shorts into the lineup. It is difficult to pick just one film as the one that stood out for me for a few of them did for different reasons. If you followed along with me this season and have a favorite you want to declare the comment section awaits below.