Frank Rich, James Lapine bring keen, fresh eye to HBO's 'Sondheim'

Nothing 'same old, same old' about this brilliant look at Stephen Sondheim

  • SIX BY SONDHEIM: Frank Rich and James Lapine throw out the rulebook for TV documentaries in this HBO film about Stephen Sondheim (pictured).
SIX BY SONDHEIM: Frank Rich and James Lapine throw out the rulebook… ( Jerry Jackson/courtesy…)
December 07, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

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.)

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