A beautiful piece of theatre happened tonight on television. SIX BY SONDHEIM, a 90-minute documentary produced by Frank Rich and James Lapine and directed by Mr. Lapine, premiered on HBO tonight and charted its way through Stephen Sondheim’s musical theatre career with a loose focus upon six of his songs. Naturally, those songs are from different points of Mr. Sondheim’s long and celebrated six-decade career as a composer and lyricist, and in-between them Mr. Lapine interweaves a fascinating patchwork of old and recent interviews, as well as still photographs of Sondheim at work, at rest, and at play, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together into a cohesive picture only at the end. That final image is a photograph of Sondheim behind his desk, working and smiling.
It is a mesmerizing and emotional hour and a half, beautifully directed and edited; a few minutes into the documentary we are watching Larry Kert’s pretty much complete performance of “Something’s Coming” from WEST SIDE STORY and I am already reaching for the tissues, completely done in. There was another hour twenty to follow, during which Stephen Sondheim appears on camera quite often, of course, talking to a whole slew of interviewers about his life, his craft, his points of view. We see him as a much younger man, chain-smoking cigarettes and seeming somewhat sour and gloomy, but always bright and wickedly articulate. The present-day Sondheim appears to be more emotionally expressive, more reflective, and infinitely warmer. Part of what makes this film so compelling is that it is centered upon a person you get to really like, enormously.
But what makes this documentary must-see viewing, for those of us who have grown up, and grown old, in the theatre in the last fifty years, is that this man has dominated the high end of the American musical theatre world for the span of our entire adult lives. I got my first professional acting job in summer stock almost forty years ago (full disclosure: which is where I met Tulis McCall, who was also in the cast) and yes, it was a Sondheim show. Gypsy. West Side Story. Follies. Pacific Overtures. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Company. Merrily We Roll Along. A Little Night Music. Sweeney Todd. Into The Woods. Sunday In The Park With George. Assassins. Passion.
I mean, good grief, how can all that amazing brilliance come out of just one person? We have been fortunate to live in the time of an American Shakespeare, in a very real sense, and I am glad that Six By Sondheim has added its substantial share of pieces to the puzzle, no, to the beautiful mosaic of Stephen Sondheim.
I am also glad that I recorded this, and I look forward to re-watching Dean Jones just freaking nail “Being Alive” in the recording studio on the very final take, and to seeing the excitement spread across the room along with the big smile on Elaine Stritch’s face. But that can wait until tomorrow. I’ll watch it again over morning coffee, with a handy box of Kleenex somewhere nearby.