Typically, documentarists making a film about a living subject seek to interview that person, numerous times and at length. In that respect, "Six by Sondheim," the new HBO film by James Lapine, isn't like other documentaries. There is no new footage of the composer in the movie.
"Steve had nothing to do with the movie," said Lapine, who has frequently collaborated with Sondheim, notably on the musicals Sunday in the Park With George, Passion and Into the Woods. "He stayed out of it and gave us carte blanche."
"He wanted to do his own work," said theatre critic and journalist Frank Rich, who is executive producer of the film, which will air Dec. 9. "He had a million projects going on."
In the end, Sondheim's lack of involvement wasn't a problem, for clips of the composer talking about his work were hardly scarce. "Six by Sondheim" is brimming with what seem like hundreds of different filmed interviews with Sondheim, dating from 1961 to the present day. Many were interviews Lapine didn't know existed and had never seen, some of them shot on British programs.
"I think it's kind of unique," Lapine said of Sondheim's ubiquity on talk shows over the years. "Steve kind of burst on the scene at the time when TV was coming up."
"He's actually been one of the most press-accessible artists around," remarked Rich. "He was always willing to talk about what did. And because he's so smart and articulate, we just felt blessed in the material we had."
Strung together, the many interviews draw a consistent portrait of the artist over the years. Sondheim's ideas about his work seemingly formed early and rarely wavered. Neither did his willingness to openly discuss his artistic choices and process.
"He's had the same thing to say about certain subjects over the years," observed Lapine. So rich was the collection of material that the director's one attempt to create contemporary footage proved unnecessary. "Steve and Frank did some speaking engagements across the country," Lapine explained. "In those conversations, Frank asked him a couple things about some of the songs that he thought were missing [from the film]. By the time we worked on the movie, however, we realized we didn't need it."
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