'Six by Sondheim' Is Intro-Level Stuff, with Some Oddities

If you're a musical theater nerd who worships at the altar of Stephen Sondheim, much of HBO's documentary tonight will be familiar. What's new might be disappointing. 

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If you're a musical theater nerd who worships at the altar of Stephen Sondheim, much of HBO's documentary tonight will be familiar. What's new might be disappointing.

The documentary—directed by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine—fails mostly because of expectations. It purports to focus on six Sondheim songs—hence the name—and yet its perspective is far more broad. It strings together archival interviews from over the years with the composer/lyricist, who who wasn't very involved at all, turning the film into something of an introductory course on his work, skimming the entirety of this career in just an hour and a half. That leaves little time to linger on the six songs, supposedly the heart of the film.  

Perhaps the oddest thing about this documentary is the way those songs are presented. There are three newly filmed performances of "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, and "I'm Still Here" from Follies. (The "Opening Doors" segment is directed by Lapin, Autumn de Wilde did "Send in the Clowns," while Todd Haynes did "I'm Still Here.") As for the rest of the songs? The viewer simply gets footage of original cast members of West Side StoryCompany, and Sunday in the Park With George singing "Something's Coming," "Being Alive," and "Sunday," respectively. Not that those original performances aren't good, but it's hard to get excited when you can watch the same performances on YouTube.  

As for the others? According to an interview with Lapine, the reason each song isn't honored with a new performance was a matter of necessity. He told Broadway.com: "The initial idea was to get six different directors to do six songs. And that proved really difficult, because the directors, who were all brilliant, wanted budgets that were so huge that we couldn’t afford them. But it was fun to get some younger people in the movie who were the right age and had the vocal chops to do it." It's understandable that budgetary issues got in the way, but it would be more excusable if the new interpretations were given their due. Instead "Opening Doors"—with the likes of Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera, and even Sondheim himself stepping in—is sung against an extremely obvious green-screen backdrop. Meanwhile, Audra McDonald's lovely "Send in the Clowns" is cut short—the first part of the song is done by various artists whose performances are presented as if on YouTube. Rocker Jarvis Cocker's rendition of "I'm Still Here" seems to undermine the intention of the song. He sings to a room of garish looking elderly woman, giving the anthem, normally sung by a woman, a nasty tone.

All in all, it was hard to tell for whom the documentary was intended. For fans, its easy to remark that what you're getting isn't as in depth as Sondheim's annotated books of his lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. For newbies, it might still be too niche. Perhaps the problem is there's so much readily available Sondheim if you want to go on a deep dive. You can watch Sondheim cry as a sea of former cast members sing "Sunday" to him on his 80th birthday. You can hear a range of different versions of "Something's Coming" by the likes of Mandy Patinkin and Shirley Bassey.  There's Raúl Esparza's unbelievable "Being Alive," and innumerable renditions of "Send in the Clowns," something the documentary nods to.

If you want an "I'm Still Here" that's really poignant, check out Elaine Stritch singing (and forgetting the words) for the President and First Lady. When she gets to the end, you better believe this legend is still here.

Despite, however, some of the disappointments of Six by Sondheim, it's worth watching. It gives a solid, loving overview of the man's life and work, and for that we should all be thankful. The next step is taking to YouTube and watching the rest.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.