Thursday, August 22, 2019

#TBT: 2013's HBO Documentary Six By Sondheim

This week's #TBT is likely a true throwback to most of you, as it should be for real theater fans. Sadly, it is all new to me. Somehow, the Peabody Award-winning HBO Documentary: Six by Sondheim eluded me all these years, and I just saw it last week. What kind of Broadway...what kind of Sondheim fan am I??? Surely, I can't be the only one who missed it. And it is for those of you who missed it that I write today's article. And for fans who might not have thought about recently.

In a nutshell, this excellent documentary about America's greatest living Broadway composer is a compilation of highlights from decades of filmed interviews in which Stephen Sondheim talks about his process, his hits, his failures - Merrily We Roll Along really stung him. But what makes this interesting is his candid revelations about his mother, who makes Rose seem like a pussycat, the rest of his family, and how being virtually adopted by Oscar Hammerstein II and family shaped his life and his calling. Hearing him matter-of-factly admit his mother didn't want or like him is sobering, and listening to him tearfully recall an inscription made to him on a photograph by Hammerstein made me cry, too.

The "six" of the title refers to six seminal songs from his oeuvre that highlighted periods of his evolution and/or resonated with the master himself. The genesis of each is discussed, given context, then performed. Each of the presentations offers a wonderful take on the recognizable tunes.

  • "Something's Coming" from West Side Story as performed by Broadway's original Tony, Larry Kert. It is, for my money, the definitive version.
  • "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along as performed by Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, America Ferrera, Laura Osnes, Jackie Hoffman and Sondheim himself. It is really quite good, and was a bit of a revelation to me in that I had no idea Ms. Ferrera could sing! And it is fun to listen to Sondheim do one of his own songs. The look on his face when he sings "they want a tune they can him" is priceless!
  • "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, easily his most famous song, is presented as a montage of just about everyone who ever sang the song. It ends with Audra McDonald singing the final verses, while accompanied by Will Swenson on guitar. Of course, she's wonderful, but it was a real treat to hear Glynis Johns sing (and talk about) the song.
  • "I'm Still Here" from Follies was an oddity, presented as a comedy club/nightclub scene with ladies of a certain age watching British alt-rock star Jarvis Cocker talk-sing his way through it. It really made me pay attention to the words, and the women's facial expressions were a study in acting.
  • "Being Alive" from Company was pretty much just the scene from that other famous documentary. But it was so great to see Dean Jones, Elaine Stritch and Beth Howland work their way through the number again.
  • "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George is, according to the master himself, his favorite of his shows. It's nice to know that it brings him to tears just like the rest of us. It's one long sentence, and, after hearing him talk about it, I'll never hear the last word the same way again. "Forever" is the perfect summary of his impact on the art of musical theater.

If you haven't seen it, see it. If you have, see it again. It is well worth your time.

For more information, click HERE.


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