DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's show, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: An awful lot of people have gone historically to musicals to forget their troubles, come on get happy. I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in making people unhappy, but I'm not interested in not looking at life because then I don't know why I want to write it otherwise.
BIANCULLI: On Monday, HBO presents the premiere of "Six by Sondheim," a new TV special that's part biography, part music appreciation lesson and part performance piece. It's all about the life and music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, in which he explains, among many other things, how and why he became a musical theater composer and lyricist and the inspirations for some of his most familiar songs.
If you're new to the works of Stephen Sondheim, this TV special should entice you. If you're already a fan, it should delight you. To note the arrival of this excellent new TV program about Stephen Sondheim, we're devoting today's show to Terry's 2010 conversation with him. But before this interview, I'd like to take a few moments to preview HBO's "Six By Sondheim."
It's a superbly compiled work overseen by two of the people most intimately familiar with the composer himself. It's directed by executive producer James Lapine, who collaborated with Sondheim by writing the books for and directing Broadway's "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods" and "Passion." And Lapine's fellow executive producer is Frank Rich, who reviewed many of Sondhiem's show in his days as a New York Times theater critic and who more recently has toured with Sondheim on the lecture circuit, asking questions of him and eliciting stories.
Parts of "Six by Sondheim" echo and are indebted to the 2010 Roundabout Theatre production "Sondheim on Sondheim." That was a multimedia presentation, which had a company of singers performing, while Sondheim on giant screens commented in recorded interview segments about his life and work.
That production was written by James Lapine, as well, and "Six by Sondheim" relies on the same strong spine. In "Six by Sondheim," the composer and lyricist tells his own story and explains his own songs. He's a tour guide through his own past, with specific emphasis on a half-dozen songs, which explains the title "Six by Sondheim."
The first song given this treatment in Monday's HBO special is "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story" with lyrics by Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim explains why the song was added during out of town tryouts in Washington as he hear Larry Kert, the show's young star, singing it in a vintage TV appearance from 1957.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SIX BY SONDHEIM")
SONDHEIM: We wrote it during rehearsals because the boy playing Tony, named Larry Kert, wasn't registering in his first scene with the kind of weight that made you want to follow his adventures through the show. And I suggested that we write a song that has real drive to it. A paradigmatic one would be (singing) hallelujah, hallelujah - the kind of thing that Judy Garland made her reputation from, a driving, fast-beat song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) The lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, we're going to the promised land.
SONDHEIM: And that's exactly what we did. And Larry did it on opening night in Washington and stopped the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LARRY KERT: (Singing) It's only just out of reach, down the...
SONDHEIM: He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and it gave him confidence. It was his first major musical. Of all the people in the cast, he had to be the one to carry that strength forward. And that number gave him that strength.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
KERT: (Singing) Could it be? Yes it could. Something's coming, something good if I can wait. Something's coming I don't know what it is, but it is...
BIANCULLI: There's a lot more there than just and then I wrote. And in addition to some fabulous archival performances, such as Dean Jones nailing the emotional "Being Alive" finale to "Company," "Six by Sondheim" includes several new performances staged and filmed for the documentary itself.
The approaches are daringly different and are beautiful Audra McDonald sings "Send in the Clowns" accompanied only by acoustic guitar. "I'm Still Here," the show stopper from "Follies" usually sung by an aging diva, is performed here by a young male singer, Jarvis Cocker of the rock band Pulp.
While most of the regret and remembrance and resonance are reflected in the faces of the women listening to him sing. And a new performance of "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along" includes a delightfully ironic guest appearance by Sondheim himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOORS")
SONDHEIM: (Singing) It isn't every day I hear a score this strong, but fellas if I may, there's only one thing wrong. There's not a tune you can hum. There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-de-dum. You need a tune to go bum-bum-de-dum. Give me some melody. Why can't you throw in a crumb?
BIANCULLI: At one point in "Six by Sondheim," the composer describes teaching as a sacred profession, and in the rest of the TV special, he proves he means it. A clip showing him explaining lyric writing to master-class students is a privilege to eavesdrop on, and the many TV interview clips through the decades trace Sondheim's dedication at both expanding the dimensions of musical theater and explaining it so that others can follow.
As a high schooler on my first trip to New York on my first evening in the audience of a Broadway show, I was lucky enough to see Larry Kert and Elaine Stritch in "Company." I followed and loved the work of Stephen Sondheim ever since. The appearance and the excellence of Monday's "Six by Sondheim" on HBO is one of those things that justify why I've spent my career as a TV critic.
Sooner or later I keep saying everything I really care about will show up on television and allow me to talk about it. "Six By Sondheim" has allowed me to do just that, and my only complaint about the program is more of a request. It cries out for a sequel. I already am hungry for six more by Sondheim, and that's just for starters.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.