ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

For "Sunday in the Park with George," a musical about a painter, Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics about the art of making art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTTING IT TOGETHER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Bit by bit putting it together, piece by piece only way to make a work of art.

RATH: Critic Bob Mondello says the truth of that lyric is illustrated in two new documentaries opening this week - "Six by Sondheim" and "Tim's Vermeer."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Stephen Sondheim has written quite a few classic musicals - "Company," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Sweeney Todd," "Into the Woods" - but he's had just one hit song. And as he recalls in "Six by Sondheim," it was a tricky one to write because the star who had to sing it was not a singer with a capital S.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SIX BY SONDHEIM")

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: She had a lovely, sweet, bell-like voice, which was breathy and short-winded. So it's written in short phrases. Isn't it rich - pause, pause, take your breath - are we a pair - pause, pause, take your breath - (humming) now she got a sustained line (humming).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

GLYNIS JONES: (Singing) Me here at last on the ground...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SIX BY SONDHEIM")

SONDHEIM: Breath - ya-da, da-da - pause, pause, breath. So, you know, it's not hard to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Isn't it rich...

MONDELLO: Archival footage and countless backstage stories are assembled in "Six by Sondheim" into the story of a life and a life's work. You'll hear what the grand master of the American musical learned from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein and what he learned from his first Broadway gig, "West Side Story," where his lyrics got seriously overshadowed by Leonard Bernstein's music - at least in the eyes of critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SIX BY SONDHEIM")

SONDHEIM: The opening reviews in Washington mentioned everybody connected with the show. They were all raves. Except me. I was obviously disappointed and chagrined - my first professional show. And so on the morning after, I was riding from the theater back to the hotel with Lenny, and he said, look, the lyrics are yours. I'm perfectly happy to take my name off the lyrics.

And he said, and, of course, we'll adjust the royalties. And I said, oh, who cares about one. It's just a credit. If somebody had only put a gag in my mouth at that point, I would have made a lot more money over the years.

MONDELLO: Live and learn. And learn you will watching "Six by Sondheim," a biographical sketch as master class in select cities this weekend and on HBO Monday night. The film "Tim's Vermeer" also centers on a single artist, except he's not an artist. He's an inventor. As a pioneer of desktop video software, Tim Jenison knows visuals, but he'd never so much as held a paintbrush when he decided to try to paint the way that 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer did in some of the most exquisite oil paintings ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIM'S VERMEER")

TIM JENISON: They called it painting with light. Vermeer painted with light. You can't paint with light. You have to paint with paint. And so what they're really talking about is this verisimilitude that Vermeer has that it's just pops. You see it from across the room, and it looks like a slide. It looks like a color slide of Kodachrome.

MONDELLO: Jenison had read that the Renaissance masters probably used in their work some of the tools that would eventually lead, centuries later, to photography - lenses and mirrors - to exactly match real-world colors to colors on canvas.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIM'S VERMEER")

JENISON: To test this, I propped up a high school photograph of my father-in-law on the table.

MONDELLO: A black and white photo.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIM'S VERMEER")

JENISON: I put a piece of Masonite down here to paint on. I sent a small mirror at a 45-degree angle, and for the first time in my life, I did just what Vermeer may have done: I picked up some oil paints and a brush.

MONDELLO: Jenison bobs his head up and down, looking past the mirror to paint on the Masonite. When he looks at the very edge of the mirror, he can see both his painting and the reflection at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIM'S VERMEER")

JENISON: I'm just going to apply paint and either darken or lighten the paint. When it's exactly the same color, the edge of the mirror will disappear. Right on the forehead, you can see that they match because you can't really see the edge of the mirror. It's not subjective. It's objective. I'm a piece of human photographic film at that point.

MONDELLO: Finally, the camera pulls back and you see what he's painted. I've watched the film three times now and all three times, the audience has gasped. It is the black-and-white photo but in oil. Astonishing. Director Teller, best known as the silent half of the magic team Penn and Teller, whisks you through all kinds of complicated concepts, but his narrative is crystal clear as Jenison proceeds from this first test to building a copy of Vermeer's studio in a Texas warehouse and reconstructing the room Vermeer painted in The Music Lesson - harpsichord, chair, stained glass windows.

The process of putting those three-dimensional objects on canvas in natural light is so fascinating that no one's going to make jokes about this film being like watching paint dry, though at one point the film is literally about watching paint dry and then applying varnish. As with "Six by Sondheim," "Tim's Vermeer" works at capturing on film how artists work their miracles. And it will have you, long after the credits fade, puzzling out questions of invention and creativity, science, talent, painstaking craft and the magic that comes of putting all of that together. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTTING IT TOGETHER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The art making art is putting together bit by bit...

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