James Lapine, Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim Discuss "Six by Sondheim," New HBO Film About Composer

Director James Lapine, journalist Frank Rich and composer Stephen Sondheim chat with Playbill.com about HBO's new film "Six by Sondheim." 



James Lapine
James Lapine (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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."

Stephen Sondheim
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Sondheim, who didn't view the film until it was completed, said he wasn't surprised by the number of televised interviews he had given over the years. Nor had he forgotten any of his interlocutors. "It's like going through a scrapbook. 'Hey, there's Aunt Ethyl. That's when we lived in New Rochelle.'"

The idea for the film began with Rich, who has written extensively about Sondheim throughout his long career as a journalist, and is a creative consultant at HBO. To do a documentary about the songwriter was one of his first notions at HBO. "I knew Steve had resisted other efforts to do a documentary on him," said Rich. "He found them to conventional and boring."

Eventually, Lapine was sought out. "It was kind of a result of the Sondheim on Sondheim musical I did," explained the director. "HBO approached me about possibly doing something for them."

Though the film looks at the entirety of Sondheim's life and career, its conceptual spine is an examination of six Sondheim songs and the circumstances under which they were created. The songs are: "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, "Being Alive" from Company, "I'm Still Here" from Follies, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along and "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park With George.

"The notion was, rather than just do an 'American Masters' about his life," said Lapine, "it seemed like an interesting idea to find six songs that tell the story about his life in different ways, and also delve into the process of songwriting."

And so, "Something's Coming" was chosen as an example of the period of Sondheim's career when he was writing only lyrics, and the autobiographical "Opening Doors" as an illustration of the time when he was an idealistic young artist in New York City hungry for success.

Frank Rich
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It's amazing how quickly in retrospect we settled on the songs," recalled Rich. Again, the composer himself was not privy to the selection process, having given Rich and Lapine complete freedom to choose the songs they thought fit the bill.

Most of the original material in the documentary consists of short films created to accompany the songs. James Lapine directed a segment in which Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera and Laura Osnes sing "Opening Doors." (According to Sondheim, Martin Scorcese was slated to direct the film accompanying "Opening Doors," but "four weeks before shooting he had a scheduling conflict.")

Noted filmmaker Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven," "I'm Not There") created a film around "I'm Still Here," in which Jarvis Cocker, former lead singer of the BritPop group Pulp, delivers the number in a staged nightclub. And Autumn De Wilde, working with Audra McDonald and Will Swenson, directed a piece of "Send in the Clowns."

Reacting to the short films, Sondheim pronounced himself pleased. "I like anything that that's unusual and original," he said.

Originally, the plan was to fashion original videos for all six songs, but "it became exhausting to do all of them," said Lapine. "It wasn't an easy idea, because it meant commissioning these music videos, casting them and shooting them." And so existed material — such as the sequence where Dean Jones records "Being Alive," from D.A. Pennebaker's famous documentary of the making of the cast album of Company — were used instead. "We felt we couldn't top Dean Jones' performance and the way D.A. Pennebaker filmed it," commented Rich. A 1958 tape of Larry Kert on an obscure show called "Look Up and Live" was used as the video accompaniment for "Something's Coming." "It just leapt of the screen," said Rich of the clip.

Lapine's film of "Opening Doors" — which was filmed against a green screen and constantly moving turntable and smacks of a postcard-perfect vision of vibrant postwar New York City — contains a surprise for Sondheim fans. The composer himself acts and sings the role of the producer, a part played by Jason Alexander in the original Broadway production. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he gets to sing-lecture the two youthful composers Frank and Charley about the need for more "hummable melodies." It's the composer's cheeky answer to years of critics' claims that Sondheim's tunes aren't memorable.

It was Lapine's idea to cast Sondheim. "We took it to him not knowing how he would react," recalled Rich. "He said yes. A week or two before we shot it, he was complaining and saying, 'Why did I ever get in this?'"

According to Sondheim, the role amounts to only the second screen acting job of his entire career, the first being a performance as pianist Maxie Schwartz in a 1974 television production of George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner's satiric play about the songwriting business, June Moon.

Asked if it took much persuading to get him to appear in the film, Sondheim said, "'Much' is a loaded word. I said yes in a few minutes, but it was James putting the pressure on. If it were anyone else…."