Friday, July 11, 2014

Stephen Sondheim, Movie Star

Response to Six by Sondheim, directed by James Lapine for HBO Documentary Films, 2014.

For James Lapine's documentary Six by Sondheim, seamless editing gives us one anecdote told across sixty years of archival film, as Stephen Sondheim tells interviewer after interviewer about that afternoon when he was fifteen, and Broadway master Oscar Hammerstein taught him more about writing a musical than he learned anywhere else.  In his twenties, in black-and-white, he appears reserved until he launches into the story.  Then we see the animation and hear the delight that remain with him to the present day.  The face has changed, but Sondheim's voice -- in both the literal and figurative senses -- remains the same.

Anyone interested in Sondheim's career and craft will recognize all the material lovingly assembled here. It's roughly organized around six songs, but each song is a gateway into a stage in Sondheim's career, or into an aspect of his creative process.  We see Larry Kert in close up performing "Something Coming" with piano (and a leather jacket) on the set of a New York local Sunday morning TV program, and Dean Jones' final take of "Being Alive" in an extended clip from the 1970 documentary about the recording of Company's original cast album.  Thanks to YouTube, we hear "Send in the Clowns" spliced together from a half-dozen different interpretations (the egregious one being Patti LaBelle, who holds the second syllable of "you in midair" until the house goes wild), topped by a new performance by Audra McDonald with a classical guitarist. 

"Opening Doors" is presented as an accurate and affectionate picture of the life Sondheim led with his cohort of writers in the late 50s and early 60s -- Mary Rodgers, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Fred Ebb, John Kander.  It's directed as a kind of MGM musical / MTV video hybrid, the camera swirling around the three characters as they sing their rapid-fire conversation on a pastel-colored retro soundstage set.  Every phrase gives the actor some specific thought to project, illustrating how Sondheim gives his actors so much to "play" in face, gesture, and tone.

Even for the aficionado, there are a few surprises.  The prime example is a performance of "I'm Still Here." Written to be an anthem of survival for a diva past her prime, the song here is turned inside-out:  a youngish man sings to minimal accompaniment as the camera turns our attention to women in various stages of life as they react.  It's very uncomfortable, as the words seem to conjure feelings of loss and regret in the women.  In the end, it's very moving. 

Another surprise is to see Sondheim's home movies, visiting the Forum and making the obvious joke. We see him walking around his Connecticut home, his standard poodles cavorting.  We see rare clips of Merman in Gypsy and Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music.  Sondheim is momentarily nonplussed when Interviewer Diane Sawyer asks, "Do you regret not having children?"  Another time, speaking directly to the man behind the camera, James Lapine, Sondheim expresses gratitude for their collaboration on Sunday in the Park with George, because it revived him at the point when Merrily We Roll Along had failed, "and people wanted Hal and me to fail."  .

I also prize a close up of Sondheim's face, in black and white, ca. 1965, during a discussion of Do I Hear a Waltz?  Book writer Arthur Laurents is telling the interviewer what Sondheim accomplishes in his lyrics, making each line tell.  [I quote from memory]  "You hear a song begin, 'When I hold your hand,' okay, we all know the rest, 'I fall in love,' okay, and we're ready for the next song. But not Steve...."   Sondheim displays no overt reaction to his friend's appreciation.  "No one else is writing like him," Laurents says.  The camera lingers on Sondheim.

In 1965, that was the face of a young man whose resume was already full of hits that are enduring classics:  West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Still ahead of him lay the writing of scores for shows that re-imagined musical theatre in a way that would have made Oscar Hammerstein proud. 

Thinking back on that young face, I'm reminded of the last words in the documentary, written by James Lapine, spoken by "George" at the end of "Sunday":  "Blank.  A white page or canvas.  ....So many possibilities."

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