Doc tries (and succeeds) at summarizing composer in a half-dozen songs


EVEN STEPHEN | James Lapine, left, directs stars performing the songs of Sondheim, second from left.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor


 4 out of 5 stars
Premieres on HBO Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. 90 mins.


Theaterfolk know how to showcase a musical number in the best possible way — typically, they don’t have the burden of changing settings and special effects like filmmakers do. What you see onstage is what you get.

That’s something James Lapine, one of the most acclaimed of all theater directors, knows inherently well. He’s the man who directed Sunday in the Park with George, re-creating George Seurat’s Afternoon on La Grand Jatte in a human tableau. The man knows The Wow Factor that a musical number can make if presented in uninterrupted takes with smart, smooth transitions.

Which made him the perfect choice to direct Six by Sondheim, a new documentary about Stephen Sondheim, premiering Monday on HBO. Looking back on the history of Sondheim — the most acclaimed and influential composer for the musical theater that the world will probably ever see — Lapine culls together interviews over a 60-year career, eventually boiling down what you need to know about him to six songs from six shows: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along (which Sondheim declares is his only autobiographical song) and “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (his only hit single as a composer).

So, is it possible to express the totality of a musical career in six four-minute vignettes?

Well, there’s more to the film that just that.

Lapine’s first smart move is to allow the songs to play out longer than you expect in movies of this kind. We first encounter “Something’s Coming” in a Kinescope black-and-white recording of Larry Kert from the original Broadway production. There’s no drama to the shot, no movie magic that transports us, like the film would try a few years later. No, instead the power comes from hearing the poignancy behind the lyrics, as Sondheim narrates the fascinating backstory about how he and Leonard Bernstein composed the song in order to set the tone for the rest of the show.

And that’s what makes Six by Sondheim deliciously consumable for theater queens. Sondheim chokes up recounting the influence Oscar Hammerstein had not just on his career, but his life; he relives the successes as well as the failures; he confesses that, until he met his boyfriend around age 60, he led a sadly solitary life. It even gives us a rare opportunity to hear Sondheim sing a Sondheim song.

There are compelling clips — Ethel Merman performing “Rose’s Turn” onstage, for instance — but the heart of the show is young stars of today re-creating musical numbers in full scenes made for the camera: Glee’s Darren Chris, Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, Tony Award fave Audra McDonald and more. (Lapine directs most of the sequences, but filmmaker Todd Haynes takes on an especially quirky version of “I’m Still Here.”)

If you thought it was impossible to see these songs afresh, well, that’s kinda what Six by Sondheim sets out to do. Mission accomplished.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 6, 2013.