It’s hard to surprise musical theater fans, who feel like they already know everything about legends of the industry like Stephen Sondheim. But for legit avids who sit down to watch the Dec. 9 premiere of HBO documentary “Six by Sondheim,” one thing about the film’s cornucopia of archival interview footage will likely prove instantly striking: So many talkshows!
The depth and variety of the footage (stretching back to the ’60s) give the impression that guests on vintage TV yakkers sat around having in-depth chats about musical theater all the time — as if it wouldn’t be uncommon these days to catch Andrew Lippa on “The View” and Jeanine Tesori on “Fallon.”
Maybe credit the overlap of Sondheim’s rise to prominence with the flourishing of the television age. But whatever the explanation, the filmmakers discovered they had a wealth of resources to tap as they assembled a look at Sondheim’s life and creative process, exemplified by a half-dozen tunes including “Something’s Coming” and “Send in the Clowns.” A retro-styled rendition of “Opening Doors” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) stars Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan and America Ferrera, and Jarvis Cocker takes on “I’m Still Here” (from “Follies”) in a seg helmed by Todd Haynes.
Sondheim was hands-off, but left the project in hands he knows well. James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the original productions of Sondheim musicals including “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion,” directs, with Frank Rich, the longtime theater critic who is now an executive producer on HBO’s “Veep,” onboard as exec producer of “Six by Sondheim.”
The film grew out of the Broadway run of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” the 2010 Roundabout Theater Company show that Lapine created in celebration of the songsmith’s 80th birthday. “The stage show was really a musical revue,” Lapine says. “This is more about watching an artist create something specifically. It’s as much about a process as it is about a person.”
Lapine, who directed and wrote the book for the current Off Broadway musical adaptation of “Little Miss Sunshine” and is in the midst of casting his upcoming Broadway adaptation of Moss Hart autobiography “Act One,” revisited “Into the Woods” with Sondheim for the upcoming film adaptation of the 1987 musical. Sondheim penned a new tune for the film, to be sung by Meryl Streep as the Witch.
Sondheim and Lapine have been working together for some 30 years since “Sunday in the Park,” which bowed Off Broadway in 1983, but even so, Lapine was delighted at some of the footage uncovered for “Six by Sondheim” — including homemovies of Ethel Merman in “Gypsy.”
“That’s the great fun of a documentary,” Lapine says. “You don’t really know where it’s going.”