VOD film review: Six by Sondheim
Ivan Radford | On 30, Nov 2021
Director: James Lapine
Cast: Stephen Sondheim
Where to watch Six by Sondheim online in the UK: Sky Documentaries / NOW
Not since Shakespeare has a writer been so timelessly influential as Stephen Sondheim. A maestro of music and lyrics, he remains, even after his death at the age of 91, the bar against which all musical theatre will be matched for decades to come. This HBO documentary from director James Lapine is at once a love letter to him, a biographic profile and an in-depth dissection of his work – that it’s suitable for newcomers to his craft and fans who have listened and relistened to his songs on a loop is testament not only to Lapine’s filmmaking but also the very nature of Sondheim’s spellbinding talent.
Contradiction has always been at the heart of his thrilling work, and he has a knack for repeating words over and over until they both lose all meaning and take on multitudes of sense. “America” becomes exciting and bittersweet, “Joanna” becomes entrancing and romantic yet also haunting and tragic, “Being alive” becomes at once full of swooning hope and fear. That gift for wordplay and holding more than one idea within a syllable would alone make Sondheim a genius – to also couple those lyrics with music makes him a legend.
Six by Sondheim, as its title suggests, knows that digging right into the technical handiwork is key to examining his legacy, and therefore looks at his legacy through the lens of six specific songs: “Something’s Coming”, “Opening Doors”, “Send in the Clowns”, “I’m Still Here”, “Being Alive” and “Sunday”. In between each number is a bevy of performing talents, from Darren Criss to Audra McDonald, each one giving perspectives on his work.
Lapine supplements this with some superbly edited, and brilliantly insightful, interviews with Sondheim, which see him on reflective and introspective form, whether he’s talking about his painful relationship with his mother and growing up amid a divorce or how he started out working on the lyrics for West Side Story before graduating to a solo career also composing the music.
Performances, rehearsals and more give us multiple interpretations of each number, but Sondheim’s also on hand to explain inspirations behind them – and, perhaps more rewardingly, instructions on how to perform them. He waxes lyrical about his love of teaching, which feeds into his generous nature in nurturing and encouraging new generations of talent, and there’s oodles of gold in just listening to him explain why he’s written a rhythm in a certain way to shape its performance – the line between singing and speaking, unsurprisingly, is a rich seam for observation.
The result is an ode to Sondheim’s astonishing versatility, relentless creativity and instinctual maturity, which has seen him tackle everything from dating and marriage to fairytales and expectations shaped by storytelling – not to mention a serial-killing barber. That blend of intellectual and emotional complexity and witty catchiness – he talks of the need, above all, to be simple – will keep audiences singing along with his songs for the foreseeable future. After a career in which he so often passed the torch to others, what a treat it is to see him take centre-stage here.
Six by Sondheim is available on Sky One. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.