Screen: HBO

Sondheim For Nobody

Six By Sondheim, an HBO doc about the musical theatre genius, doesn't know whom it's talking to.

I've watched the new HBO documentary Six By Sondheim, and I still have no idea whom it's for.

Let's say you're a Stephen Sondheim neophyte. Maybe you've heard of West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, but for the most part, you don't know anything about this particular genius of the musical theatre. Superficially, this documentary might sound perfect for you, since it purports to tell the story behind six Sondheim songs by mixing new and historical interview footage with filmed performances by current Broadway luminaries like Audra McDonald and Jeremy Jordan.

Only...whoops. That's not actually what this documentary is about. Yes, there are filmed versions of the songs (more on those in a minute), but instead of exploring how they were created, the film mentions them in passing while it bounces around through Sondheim's biography. When the title cards announce that we're moving to the next song, it's legitimately surprising. As in, "Oh, we've finished learning about 'Being Alive'? When did we start?"

But still....Sondheim's biography! That's good for a newbie, right? Well...not when it's presented like this. For one thing, the information comes in a free-associative jumble, so that we're learning about Sondheim's relationship to Oscar Hammerstein one second, then skipping ahead to photos from the 1980s, then galloping back to Gypsy's opening night. It's possible that this is supposed to take us through Sondheim's life in a more emotional way — professional relationships followed by personal relationships followed by late-blooming love, etc. — but for a newcomer, that won't make a lot of sense.

And speaking of: director James Lapine (who also collaborated with Sondheim on many of his shows) assumes so much about the audience's existing knowledge of musicals and musical theatre history that I think a newbie would feel shut out. Because seriously...most modern viewers just don't know who people like Jule Styne are. A passing reference or a quick photograph isn't going to mean anything without more context.

But what if this film isn't for Sondheim amateurs? What if it's for experts?

Well, I am far from an expert, and let me tell you, even I have heard every damn story in this movie at least three times. Sondheim's mother hated him! Oscar Hammerstein was his emotional father! No doy!

Granted, those are great, illuminating stories, but only the first few times you hear them. Intentionally or not, Lapine underscores how hoary certain anecdotes are by compiling footage of all the times Sondheim has recited them for reporters. If he's already told Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, and Larry King, then maybe this movie should find something else to say, you know? Especially if the intended audience is people who also purchased Sondheim's recent autobiographies, watched the PBS special about his birthday, and saw Sondheim On Sondheim, the 2010 Broadway revue (also directed by James Lapine) that combined interview footage with live performances of Sondheim's songs.

Which brings me to the quasi-music videos in the HBO film. Is there anyone in this big round world who wants to see Jarvis Cocker creepily recite the lyrics to "I'm Still Here" while a nightclub full of old women looks on? Or how about an aggressively "arty" rendering of "Send In The Clowns," where the opening chords are played incorrectly and the camera zooms so tightly on Audra McDonald's face that you can essentially see her brain? Or how about a version of "Opening Doors" that's staged on a cheap-looking, digitally enhanced set and features Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera, and Darren Criss pantsing around?

What's that? No one wants to see that? EXACTLY.

I understand the impulse to examine the career of one of America's greatest living artists, but surely there's a way to do it without alienating anyone who might want to watch.

For Game Show Week we consider:

Sondheim shows that could easily become game shows!

  • Assassins: Some contestants are dressed like presidents, others like assassins. Everyone has a giant water gun!
  • Into the Woods: Can you and your team survive a night in the magical forest? Get sassy advice from Little Red, avoid the wicked witch, and to win, be the first to collect the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold!
  • Sunday In The Park...With George!: In this reality competition series, three artists compete every week to see who can create the most interesting work based on America's greatest parks. Hosted by George Lopez!
  • Company: In a romantic new series from the creators of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, a group of wannabe spouses must convince as a misanthropic jerk that getting married is worthwhile, all while they host him at a dinner party. If he agrees to consider it, the host of that dinner party wins!
  • Follies: The residents of ten retirement homes across America are each staging musical numbers, and every week, America decides which group of oldsters to boot from the competition. Eventually, the winning group gets to go on a tour of dinner theatres in South Florida. The judging/mentoring panel includes Neil Diamond, Adrienne Barbeau, and Wink Martindale!