Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”
But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.
Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.
Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.
That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”
Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.
Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?