“I like neurotic people,” says composer Stephen Sondheim at the start of the magnificent new HBO documentary “Six by Sondheim.”
The 90-minute film goes on to illustrate how fortunate that affinity for neurosis has been for lovers of musical theater in show after glorious show for which the New York native has written either lyrics or lyrics and music, including “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Director and sometime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine expertly stitches together over a dozen interviews the composer has given during his over 50-year career — including some conducted by Lapine himself — which means that Sondheim narrates his own story. (A brief pause to remember the days when TV chat shows routinely welcomed composers like Sondheim to talk about the arts. Whither Mike Douglas?)
Given how sharp his songwriting is, it’s little surprise that Sondheim makes an excellent storyteller, always candid and precise, and by turns funny and rueful. And it’s a remarkable tale, one that could probably make for a great musical.
At a young age, in the midst of the turbulence of his parents’ divorce, Sondheim was given refuge and encouragement in the home of his neighbors, the Hammersteins. Yes, that Hammerstein.
His lifelong appreciation for what Oscar Hammerstein II — the legendary composer of such classic musicals with Richard Rodgers including “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific,” and “Oklahoma!” — offered him in the way of love and advice is the poignant emotional core of “Six by Sondheim,” which trace his life and career from “West Side Story” to the present.
The title alludes to the film’s conceit. The narrative is chronological but it stops intermittently to focus on six single songs that were either pivotal to Sondheim’s career (as was “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”) or has a personal attachment for the composer (like the semi-autobiographical “Opening Doors” from “Merrily We Roll Along”).
In addition to footage of various original and revival casts performing some of the selected songs, including great moments with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, the cast of “Company,” and newly unearthed footage of Ethel Merman, three of the tunes are also represented by newly created video vignettes directed by Autumn DeWilde, Todd Haynes, and Lapine.
Tony winner Audra McDonald, with help from Will Swenson, renders Sondheim’s biggest “hit,” “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” with her signature assuredness. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker speak-sings his way through “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” with a captivatingly slouchy weariness.
And in the final act triumph, Sondheim himself sings in the vignette for “Opening Doors,” playing the part of the skeptical producer to a T across from Jeremy Jordan (“Smash”), Darren Criss (“Glee”), and America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) as a trio, of plucky idealist writers.
Fortunately, the film also looks at the whole of Sondheim’s career, offering snippets of some of his greatest triumphs and unfortunate misfires, both creatively and commercially, with the two not always dovetailing. (It does curiously omit or gloss over a few, including “Into the Woods” and “Assassins.”)
And with each show, Sondheim learned, observing in one interview, “It’s so difficult to put on a show, if you have the privilege of being able to write it, write it out of passion, that’s what failure taught me.”
The film also offers revelatory glimpses into Sondheim’s methods and muses and stories behind the songs. The tale of how the bedrock “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” was written as a replacement for a jokey ditty called “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” is pure theater lore gold.
Perhaps most compelling is Sondheim’s openness about both his professional and personal life. At one point he shares that his mother once, devastatingly, wrote him a letter expressing regret over giving birth to him. No wonder he’s a fan of neurotics. And thank goodness he found a way to give them a beautiful musical voice.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.