Executive producer Frank Rich says Stephen Sondheim made just one demand before he gave his blessing to the film “Six by Sondheim,” which premieres Monday night at 9 on HBO.
“Just don’t do the same old, same old,” Rich quotes the composer-lyricist as saying when the project was proposed to him.
True to the pledge, there is nothing “same old, same old” about this take on a man whose talents — from the lyrics of “West Side Story” to a song like “Send in the Clowns” — embody the last half-century of American musical theater. The 83-year-old Sondheim has been honored with a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and multiple Tony Awards.
Rich, a columnist at New York magazine who is also an executive producer on HBO’s Baltimore-made “Veep,” and James Lapine, who has collaborated with Sondheim on such Broadway shows as “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods,” threw out the book on made-for-TV documentaries.
Strict chronology is ditched. It has no narrator, reporter or, heavens be praised, endless parade of talking heads. And in telling the story of Sondheim’s life and art through the lens of six of his songs, several works by the theater’s greatest living songwriter are re-imagined with a new generation of artists like America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”), Darren Criss (“Glee”), Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”) and Jarvis Cocker of the rock band Pulp performing.
Rich, former theater critic for The New York Times, and Lapine, a Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning director-writer, fearlessly mix the documentary, musical, journalistic and TV variety show genres into one of the most illuminating, engaging and elevated 90 minutes of television you will see this year.
Speaking by phone from London, where “Veep” was filming last week, Rich says the marching orders he and Lapine received from Sheila Nevins, chief of documentaries at HBO, were to “try to make a documentary as inventive as Sondheim is.” (More on why “Veep” is in London instead of Baltimore at the end of this column.)
“I can’t say we did that, but that was our aspiration,” Rich says. “Essentially, we wanted to find six songs that were representative of Sondheim’s life and art, and use them, if you will, as tent poles or hooks to build the story of his whole history without doing a strict chronological, ‘and-then-I-wrote’ kind of thing.”
Noting that “certain subject and themes in Sondheim’s life gravitate around these songs,” Rich says that “picking the songs was shockingly easy.”
He and Lapine both drew up lists, which “largely overlapped,” he says. “And in one quick lunch, we got to the six songs that we thought were representative — not our favorite songs, not necessarily the best songs, but songs that show different aspects of Sondheim.”
The six are “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” “Opening Doors” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” “I’m Still Here” from “Follies,” “Being Alive” from “Company,” and “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“Another idea was, when possible, to do new versions of some of the songs with more contemporary artists that might make people look at the songs again,” Rich added.
In addition to Ferrera, Criss, Jordan and Cocker, there’s a wonderful cameo performance by Sondheim himself, but I won’t spoil it by saying where he appears.
“It was Lapine’s idea,” Rich says. “We didn’t know how Steve would react to it. He said yes. Then he was complaining all the way, ‘I’m sick, I’ll never be able to do it. My voice is gone.’ … It’s not something he would normally do. But, lo and behold, he just showed up and hit it out of the park in two takes. It was a riot.”
For all the sparkling musical reinvention in “Six by Sondheim,” the rock-solid underpinning of the film is its use of archival material. The triumph here is in what the filmmakers found and the way it was deftly edited into the TV narrative.
Case in point: a film recording of Larry Kert, who played Tony in the original Broadway cast of “West Side Story,” singing “Something’s Coming” on a mostly forgotten, 1950s CBS-TV Sunday morning religious program, “Look Up and Live.” (Yes, religious program — the idea was to reach a younger audience through secular music and pop culture.)
“Sondheim has mixed feelings about his very young lyrics for ‘West Side Story,’” Rich explains. “He started them when he was 25 years old. But the one song of his that he’s proud of in that show is ‘Something’s Coming.’ And we had no idea that Larry Kert had ever done it anywhere that would be preserved.”
Much of what’s preserved from the world of New York theater in the ’50s comes from the “Ed Sullivan Show,” a Sunday night variety show that often included Broadway stars doing hit songs from their shows. Kert and Carol Lawrence, the female lead, did appear on Sullivan’s show, but they sang “Maria” and “Tonight.”
Rich said the filmmakers did not want to use the 1961 feature film version of the play, which had a younger actor replacing Kert and a dubbed vocal by another singer, and they were considering creating a new version when the recording that appears in the documentary was “unearthed.”
“When we saw it, we felt we just couldn’t top it,” Rich says.
The clip does have it all: black-and-white authenticity, raw energy and the ability to transport viewers back to the media landscape on which “West Side Story” exploded in post-World-War-II America.
But typical of how Rich and Lapine consistently go the extra mile in “Six by Sondheim,” they follow Kert’s TV performance with Sondheim talking about the process of writing those lyrics as he and composer Leonard Bernstein looked for a big song that would establish Kert and the character of Tony as strong enough presences to carry the action of the musical, an urban update of “Romeo & Juliet.”
“What surprised me about it, and still does, is all the baseball terminology — ‘one-handed catch’ and all that sort of thing,” Sondheim says in the documentary. “Somehow I got the image of Tony as a baseball player … and something cannonballing down from the sky. … And those are the right images … echoing Tony’s desire to move forward and get away from his gang life.”
The clip with Sondheim is from an interview Rich did with him at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, when the two appeared there as one of several university appearances they did discussing Sondheim’s work.
Intercut with Sondheim’s words about the writing of “Something’s Coming” and film of Kert singing it is a team picture with Sondheim as one of the adolescent ballplayers in the frame.
The documentary is that richly layered with interwoven words, images and music from beginning to end, thanks in large part to the skilled editing of Miky Wolf.
For all the talk in these changing times about Netflix, Amazon.com or Roku, HBO is still far and away the biggest house on the media block for quality content. Critics usually attribute that to fictional series like “Veep” and such made-for-TV movies as “Game Change.”
But spend 90 minutes with “Six by Sondheim” Monday night, and you will understand how HBO owns the high ground of documentary filmmaking and nonfiction programming as well.
Oh yeah — why are the cast and crew of “Veep” in London? Why is this HBO satire that’s set in Washington but made in Baltimore currently filming an episode for season 3 in the U.K.?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character, Vice President Selina Meyer, “goes to London, and complications ensue,” Rich jokes, speaking in the language of a network news release. “I can’t say anything that happens in the episode except the vice president is in London, and, of course, things are not inclined to go well.”
When asked what London could possibly offer that Baltimore doesn’t, Rich plays along.
“Our joke is that we’re actually setting the episode in Baltimore, but shooting it here in London.”
“Six by Sondheim” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun