Friday, December 6, 2013

Six By Sondheim: TV's Best For 2013

I've just previewed the new HBO special Six By Sondheim which is a sort of That's Stephen Sondheim as it ranges far and wide through the extraordinary Broadway career of the famed composer.
And I'm prepared to say it is by far the best TV special I've seen this year.
The special debuts on HBO Canada Monday night at 9. Got that?
The method is simplicity itself. Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine has collected virtually every TV interview Sondheim ever gave from the young and dewey composer on Mike Douglas, David Frost, Dick Cavett to the aging great man to finally today the 83-year old legend.
Lapine organizes the 90-minute batch of reminiscences around six key songs written by Sondheim.

First up there's "Something's Coming" which he wrote on the road for a very young Larry Kert to give the character range near the beginning of West Side Story --or rather Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music.
Five other songs get highlighted starting with "Opening Doors" from the flop Merrily We Roll Along which get re-staged (unnecessarily I feel) by theee bright young things: Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan.
There is amazing archival footage of Dean Jones singing "Being Alive" from the original Broadway cast recording session of Company --Jones really socks it.
Also highlighted is "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music which ends with a masterful refrain of all the performers who have used this bright song including Liz Taylor, Sinatra, Carol Burnett, you name it..
"I'm Still Here" is the song Sondheim chose from Follies which he says he originally wrote based on the career of Joan Crawford.
 There's an archival clip of Yvonne De Carlo belting it out and then surprise! it's a newly staged version with a male performer  (Jarvis Cocker).
"Sunday" from Sunday In The Park With George finds Bernadette Peters and Mandy Pstinkin in an archival clip.
Weaving everything together are Sondheim's reminiscences --some are newly filmed and then click we're back with the composer chatting up Mike Douglas or Andre Previn.
What emerges is a history of the Broadway musical over the past 50 years starting with West Side Story.
Then comes Gypsy with Ethel Merman who refused permission for Sondheim to wrote the music --she wanted the more established Julie Styne so Sondheim settled for the lyrics.
And footage of the original cast on stage has been unearthed --obviously some fan was shooting home movies in the big Broadway theater and got away with it.
In personal asides Sondheim talks about his parents' unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce and the heartbreaking letter his mother wrote to him before she underwent heart surgery.
He says that starting as a teenager his real father was certainly famed Broadway wroter Oscar Hammerstein who he has always wanted to emulate.
In one anecdote Hammerstein savages a 15-year-old's first musical compositions and Sondheiom today says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Because he has never been full of himself but always questioning every line of every lyric.
The anecdotes about writing to Ethel Merman's strengths and weaknesses are choice but I wish more had been made of what a bombshell Company was when it opened.
The skill of editing makes all the interviews seem as one with the composer aging gracefully into the octogenarian eager to share his talents and experiences with younger talent.
As a trip down memory lane Six By Sondheim will have you wanting more. And more.
MY RATING: ****.


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