Six By Sondheim: An HBO Documentary
A year ago I was lucky enough to see a revival of the musical, Sondheim On Sondheim. This was the first time this limited run Broadway show was done outside of NYC. The reason that the show isn't done is that it uses clips from the past of Sondheim on television. Therefore, getting the rights is a bear. The new HBO Documentary will now let us see these clips anytime. Producer Frank Rich and Director James Lapine have taken the best shots from this show and made a documentary out of it. The premise is to focus on six Sondheim songs spanning his career. The result is pure joy for Sondheim fans. I also believe the show would be interesting for any fan of writing. The main plot is how the greatest living lyricist tackles his craft.
As Frank Rich says, "Sondheim has his story and he is sticking with it." As is demonstrated through clips, Sondheim can start a sentence in one decade and finish it in another. He tells his Hammerstein stories in the exact same way. Anyone who is a fan of Sondheim knows how long he works to chose his words. Once he has them, he is sticking with them. His stories of his mother are horrifying. His stories about teaching are inspiring. His stories about his craft are humbling. Each story is then juxtaposed to compliment the song that they are focusing on. They even have 3 new recordings in the show. I have searched iTunes to be able to purchase them and they are not available. I guess this is a documentary and not Glee. The version of I'm Still Here is so strange that I can't stop thinking about it. This is a song I have known for at least 25 years and I feel like I heard it for the first time. Audra McDonald also sings Send in the Clowns. Strangely they only play half of this recording. There better be bonus features on the blu-ray. There better be a blu-ray! By far the best part of the documentary is watching Sondheim sing a part in the song Opening Doors. For years he has been criticized for not writing "Hummable" tunes. Like all inaccurate facts, this impossible complaint has been repeated for some forty years. I don't know how he doesn't scream ANYTHING you can sing you can Hum! Instead, he wrote a part in a song where a producer says these complaints to a pair of young composers. They decided to have Sondheim sing these lines. It was a pure joy to watch. I would love to know who's idea this was. Yes, I have been after Frank Rich for an interview. It will happen. I am persistent.
The only part of the documentary that I didn't agree with was playing the entire Being Alive recording from the 1970 documentary from the original cast. First, we already own this version so that takes away from the specialty of the rest of the clips and makes cutting Audra's new version of her song down even stranger. Secondly, Raul Esparza's version from the 2006 cast is far superior than the Dean Jones 1970 version. Now before you say that is just opinion, it is Sondheim's opinion as well. He has said publicly that he never thought the song worked until he saw John Doyle's version where Raul sat at the piano and played Being Alive himself. I think a more interesting part would have been to show how something he wrote in 1970 wasn't perfected till 2006. Art isn't easy. Overall this documentary gives an amazing insight into the artist of our time. Sondheim is the most important writer in my life. I go to his words like Christians go to the bible. I am glad that when I need to spend a little time with someone who inspires me to be a better person, a better musician and a better writer that I will be able to watch this and focus on Six by Sondheim.
Be sure to check out our podcast where The Red Room Interviews the Editor of this movie, Miky Wolf
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Read my review of Merrily We Roll Along in Cincinnati