By Charles Mcnulty Los Angeles Times
Ever since Stephen Sondheim reached the four-score mark three years ago, the spotlight has shifted from his work to the legend himself.
There have been galas, tributes, interviews and books in which the master reveals the secrets of his songwriting sorcery.
Now there’s “Six by Sondheim,” an HBO documentary airing tonight that’s directed by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator James Lapine, the librettist and director of “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion.”
The film doesn’t fill in any major gaps in our knowledge of the relationship between Sondheim’s life and art. But it does stylishly retread this fascinating ground with a rising emotional thrum that renders absurd the notion that Sondheim is all neurotic cleverness and no heart.
With so much golden musical material, an organizing structure is needed, and Lapine finds one in six classic songs: “Something’s Coming” (“West Side Story”), “Opening Doors” (“Merrily We Roll Along”), “Send in the Clowns” (“A Little Night Music”), “I’m Still Here” (“Follies”), “Being Alive” (“Company”) and “Sunday” (“Sunday in the Park With George”).
Weaving Sondheim history and personal refection in and around these numbers, “Six by Sondheim” pieces together a jigsaw puzzle portrait of the man who redefined the American musical in the second half of the 20th century.
By splicing interviews of the eager twentysomething lyricist-composer with the restless (and somewhat prickly) midcareer explorer and the grizzled elder statesman, the film provides a guided tour of Sondheim’s artistic consciousness.
Sondheim also acknowledges the debt he owes to Oscar Hammerstein II, his surrogate father.
Tantalizing archival footage of Ethel Merman in “Gypsy” and Bernadette Peters in “Sunday in the Park With George” reminds us of just how many superstar careers have fatefully intersected with Sondheim’s.
He refers to himself as a Broadway baby, and his theatrical legacy is inseparable from all those performers whose legends were sealed in his shows.
“Six by Sondheim” airs at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.