Stephen Sondheim's life and career viewed through his music in HBO documentary
Affixed with an unnecessary gimmick, “Six by Sondheim” is a loving ode to the composer by director James Lapine — part biography, part detailed examination of the roots of Sondheim’s talent and work. Fascinating as that latter part is, it’s slightly burdened by the decision to stage three songs specifically for the film, which features some top-flight performers — Darren Criss, America Ferrera, Audra McDonald, etc. — but isn’t really needed given the rich array of footage incorporated, from early “West Side Story” to Dean Jones belting out “Being Alive” in rehearsal. Ultimately, it’s best when the man and his songs speak for themselves.
Lapine draws on a treasure trove of Sondheim interviews so deftly woven together (credit Miky Wolf’s editing) that the composer of such shows as “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park With George” is occasionally found beginning a story in one Broadway venue and finishing it in another.
Sondheim talks about his divorced parents, being embraced by legendary composer Oscar Hammerstein II as a surrogate father, and his experience as a lyricist on “West Side Story,” before embarking on a solo career writing both the words and music.
As for the “Six” in question, Lapine somewhat arbitrary uses a half-dozen of the composer’s most famous songs — “Something’s Coming,” “Opening Doors,” “Send in the Clowns,” “I’m Still Here,” “Being Alive,” “Sunday” — as an entry point into his work, interspersed with footage of everything from early performances to rehearsals to, in the case of “Send in the Clowns,” a litany of different performers providing their interpretations. (Frankly, that might make for a pretty hilarious special all its own.)
It’s always challenging to capture the essence of such artistry on film, and Lapine comes pretty close. Other little gems include rare Ethel Merman footage from “Gypsy” or Larry Kert as Tony in “West Side Story.”
Given all that, the staged versions almost take one’s eye off the ball, at best feeling like a distraction — a way to involve some big names in a project that doesn’t really need it, given who’s likely to be interested.
Granted, that’s a bit of a quibble for a program that otherwise does a splendid job of celebrating musical theater somewhere other than PBS or the Kennedy Center Honors.
At its core, “Six by Sondheim” is really a one-man show about a writer and his craft. And while Lapine is to be forgiven the impulse, seeing how his star holds the stage, he needn’t have dressed it up with props.
TV Review: 'Six by Sondheim'
(Documentary; HBO, Mon. Dec. 9, 9 p.m.)
With: Stephen Sondheim, America Ferrera, Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, Audra McDonald, Will Swenton, Jarvis Cocker.