When I was a junior in high school, every girl at my school had to learn how to write a full on research paper by spending our entire spring semester writing a 10 page research paper.
Apparently this is unusual because once I got to college, most people had never written anything beyond a few pages and had never done real research outside of a library encyclopedia.
Anyway, the paper was allowed to be on pretty much anything we were interested in, so long as it was school appropriate. I chose to write mine on the work and influence of Stephen Sondheim.
If you think that I’m obsessed with things now, it’s nothing compared to the all encompassing, eclipsing obsession that I had with musical theater in general and with Sondheim in particular. It’s not easy for a 17 year old girl to spend six months immersed in anything, but I was steeped in Sondheim. I read articles and sections of books, I listened to interviews, and dissected the lyrics. I listened to the OBC’s over and over again. (And some of the revivals too, I’ve always prefferred Bernadette Peter’s Gypsy to Ethel Merman’s for example.)
It was an exceptional project and one of the many things that I’m incredibly grateful to my high school for providing me. Other topics my friends did, The Construction of The Chrysler Building, The Life of George Balinchine, The Societal Impact of Fairy Tales and the development of Disneyland. It was an incredible assignment.
Anyway, I was reminded of this paper, and my work on it, when I watched Six By Sondheim, a new documentary directed by Mr. Sondheim’s long time collaborator James Lapine. The film takes an in depth look at his life and career and specifically at six of his songs, “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 (Seek out Neil Patrick Harris’s version from a Lincoln Center Concert. You’re welcome.) and “Sunday” from Sunday in The Park With George. It’s punctuated by some others, but it’s really on these six.
Mr. Sondheim himself radiates warmth and joy as he talks about his work and life. He’s an incredible figure, who’s lived to see his complete impact on an art form. He’s still writing. He could never write another note or word and he’d still be one of the greatest figures that musical theater has ever seen, possibly the greatest. I kind of love that Six By Sondheim is lovingly crafted by his friend and collaborator. Lapine wrote the book for and directed my two favorite Sondheim shows, Sunday in The Park With George and Into The Woods. It’s a charming love letter to a friend.
The insight into Mr. Sondheim’s writing process, his relationship with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, and his views on teaching are new for me, even having spent six teenage months consumed with him. I learned a lot, and was deeply entertained.
The section on “Send in The Clowns” was particularly moving, because it’s a song that means so much to so many people. Lapine edited together several versions, going line by line, ending in a stunning rendition by Audra McDonald. But the recreation of “Opening Doors” which starred Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera and Darren Criss (with a special appearance by the man himself as The Producer) is a lot of fun, and honestly, if Merrily We Roll Along wasn’t such a mess of a show, I’d want to see a full scale production starring those three. The interpretation of “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker was inspired but fell flat for me personally, and not messing with perfection, we simply heard original recordings of “Being Alive,” “Something’s Coming,” and “Sunday.”
Sondheim’s words were some of the first to catipult me into my love of musical theatre, when I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch West Side Story on TV when I was little. I’ve even performed in Into The Woods as Jack’s Mother in college, wrestling with Sondheim’s difficult chords and chaotic words. Katie has my favorite sum up of Sondheim musicals, “Everything’s terrible, dissonant chord, soaring ballad about the meaning of life or art or whatever.” That’s a simplification, but it’s actually pretty accurate.
Whether you’re a fan of Sondheim’s work or not, this is an interesting look at his work and process. If you’re interested in writers, it’s worth checking out. If you’re interested in musicals at all, then it’s a must see!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to “Move On” and cry my eyes out a little.