Sondheim on Sondheim: American Musical Theater in Six Songs
A little essayistic song cycle on the life of Stephen Sondheim, told through half a dozen of the best numbers by American musical theater’s greatest architect.
The most valuable scene in Six By Sondheim, an HBO special premiering Monday night, is an interview clip of Stephen Sondheim recalling a formative afternoon he spent with Oscar Hammerstein II. When he was 15, Sondheim wrote a musical and took it to Hammerstein, asking him to judge it as if the boy were a professional. “In that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read,” Hammerstein said, and the great man proceeded to show his little apprentice everything that’s wrong with the thing, word by word, song by song. Sondheim told a CBS audience in 1961:
A song, like a play, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have an idea, state the idea, and then build the idea and develop it, and finish. And in the end you should be in a place different from where you began.
It’s a simple composition lesson that not only songwriters, but also journalists, should follow. But, as everyone knows, nothing is simple with Sondheim, and it becomes something of a philosophical lesson coming from the mouth of the greatest architect of American musical theater, who has for more than half a century held dear to his idea of developing a Broadway experience for adults, all the while being more articulate than anybody else in both talk and music.
It's fitting that Sondheim is the one who does all the talking in this little documentary, produced and directed by his close collaborator James Lapine, who worked with him on Sunday In the Park With George, Into the Woods, and other productions. Lapine stitches together dozens of old interviews and offers performances of six Sondheim numbers, composing the whole thing into something like an essayistic song cycle.
The project’s other executive producer, after all, is Frank Rich, who as a senior in college wrote a review of Follies that intrigued Sondheim so much that the already established musical mastermind asked the young man if he’d like to get a drink together, “before you officially become the enemy.” Rich, of course, fulfilled Sondheim’s prophecy to become the theater critic for The New York Times, and now spends his days writing columns for New York magazine.
I would like to think that it was this archenemy’s idea to not only journey through the beginning, middle, and not-yet-end of Sondheim, but also linger a while with the half dozen songs, to look with a tighter lens at what individual numbers tell us about the life as a whole, as an essayist would.
Granted, almost all of what Six by Sondheim offers is not new, and doesn’t tell us what a typical fan wouldn’t already know: that Sondheim’s toxic mother told him his birth was her biggest regret (oof); that after his parents’ divorce Hammerstein became his surrogate father; that his big break was writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the age of 25; that he wanted to write about all the joys and problems of life, and to rescue American musical theater from nostalgia and sentimentality; that he largely accomplished it with a string of classics from 1970’s Company onward, to Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods; that he did so with that nimble wit of his; that somehow he was the master of audacious harmonies and the most agile lyrics Broadway has ever seen—a perfect and necessary union.
However, instead of simply saying all this and providing clips of performances from the obligatory hits, Six by Sondheim shows it, herding us to feel the songs themselves, herein the represented ones of which are: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Send in the Clown” from A Little Night Music, “Being Alive” from Company, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.
The least revelatory of these are “Something’s Coming” and “Sunday,” the first because it’s not a good Sondheim song, the second because it’s a too-perfect one. Sondheim wrote the lyrics to “Something’s Coming” but not the music. The biggest misconception about Sondheim, one that’s shared with Bob Dylan as well, is that he is first and foremost a great lyricist—a poet, some might say. But his lyricism cannot be separated from his music. “Poetry seems to me to exist in terms of its conciseness—how much can be packed in,” he told Bernard Levin in 1980. “Lyric writing has to exist in time … Therefore it must be crystal clear as it goes on.” And by the time he wrote “Sunday” he knew exactly how to achieve that effect, resulting in sublimity like this:
Sunday, by the blue, purple, yellow, red water, On the green, purple, yellow, red grass, Let us pass through our perfect park, Pausing on a Sunday.
Crystal clear indeed, and the original run with Mandy Patinkin in the lead has become a touchstone of Broadway, possibly the most perfect production of recent memory. Lapine, who directed it, could do no better than admire his own good work by showing the rhapsodic performance in Six by Sondheim. The number comes last in the documentary, marking the apotheosis of Sondheim.
“Sunday” is too heavenly a thing to unpack and analyze, and “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim’s biggest hit, is more conducive to that, written because Desiree required a big number in the second act, and designed in short lines because the actress Glynis Johns had a bell-like voice that needed pauses to come up for air. But ask Frank Sinatra what the song means and he would say he didn’t know and didn’t care. “You meet a girl, you take up with her, you leave her. Send in the clowns!” Sondheim recalls old blue eyes saying. Lapine compiles a YouTube montage of different people covering the number, culminating in a simple rendition by Audra McDonald in a new segment directed by Autumn de Wilde. Todd Haynes, on the other hand, directs a playful yet poignant version of “I’m Still Here,” a song for an aging diva that Sondheim wrote while inspired by the life of Joan Crawford. Except in Haynes’s surreal world the aging divas are now in the crowd, their dejected faces staring up at Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker singing their own song to them.
But for even more of that taste, you’ll have to watch the new version of “Opening Doors” that Lapine directs, performed by America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan, and Darren Criss, with Sondheim himself in a role—yes, singing. The moment ranks as one of the most ironic turns from Sondheim, American theater’s greatest master of irony. That’s saying a lot. Written to recapture what it was like to be 25 years old and have doors open up and slammed in your face when you’re starting out, Sondheim calls this his most autobiographical song. It’s a joy to see him give pointers to Ferrera, Jordan, and Criss, while he tearfully acknowledges that his own life was saved by teachers like Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim regrets never having had kids, but everyone on Broadway today are Sondheim’s children. He’s become the father of a big family, having spent his entire career wresting his right to live out from under his mother’s hate.
Celebrating life, lest we forget, is why we go to the theater. “Art exists so that one may recover the sensation of life,” as literary critic Viktor Shklovsky said. “It exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Company is a musical that asks: what do you get out of marriage? It is written by a man who has never been married before. Sondheim began by asking a friend about marriage and taking notes, “exactly as if it were a lecture,” he said. It concludes, with a finale that’s not only (or really) an affirmation of marriage but of nearly everything.
And so we get, at the high point of Six by Sondheim, a performance of “Being Alive” for the ages, lifted from D.A. Pennebaker’s short film Company: Original Cast Album, in which he documented the recording of the cast album on the Sunday after opening night, in the spring of 1970, and which you ought to see for yourself in its entirety. The scene begins chaotically, as Sondheim interrupts the recording and tells Dean Jones to try again. “Maybe there’s one more in me, we’ll see,” Jones says begrudgingly, just as the character he plays, Robert, is crabby about matrimony.
The session begins again, and at first Pennebaker’s camera records the singers from the side, each taking turns at their lines. Soon the others fall by the wayside, and we are left with Jones struggling to draw what notes he has left of him out into the air. Then sometime about halfway through the song, he closes his eyes:
Somebody hold me too close. Somebody hurt me too deep. Somebody sit in my chair, And ruin my sleep, And make me aware, Of being alive.
Jones sings through it all, and Pennebaker doesn’t dare cut away—except once, to a beardless Sondheim smoking a cigarette, while Jones croons: “But alone, is alone, not alive…” As the finale builds, the camera crops tighter and tighter around Jones’s face, at which point we are watching nothing but him singing into the mic, completely lost in another world, as the last lines burst out of him.
Somebody let me come through, I’ll always be there, As frightened as you, To help us survive. Being alive. Being alive. Being alive.
Watch his expression when he’s through—it has to be seen to be believed. He looks about him, and finds himself back in the room—he’s of course been here all along. But in reality he’s in a place very different from where he began. “In short measures,” as Ben Jonson would say, “life may perfect be.”