Dec. 09--Six by Sondheim: Documentary. 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.
Stephen Sondheim's mother handed her only child a letter as she was heading into the operating room to have a pacemaker implanted. It read, "I have only one regret in my life and that is giving you birth."
At that point, Sondheim says in the new documentary "Six by Sondheim," he got it: "She never wanted me on earth."
That's a fairly heavy psychological burden to carry through life, to put it mildly, but Sondheim, now 83, always appears at least to have coped with it. He's done that through frankness, first in his art and then in an equally controlled fashion, in his public persona. In art and life, it's about "putting it together," according to one of his best known lyrics.
The "Six by Sondheim," airing Monday on HBO, refers to six songs whose performances frame the film's direction by James Lapine, a frequent Sondheim collaborator. Some of the titles are very well known -- "Send In the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music" (sung here by Audra McDonald) and "I'm Still Here" from "Follies" (sung improbably by British rocker Jarvis Cocker) -- but all of them are chosen with care and insight to illustrate Sondheim's creative process and the enormous influence he continues to exert on musical theater to this day.
Sondheim, the son of a well-liked but not very successful dress manufacturer and his "celebrity-hunter" wife, blossomed when he was sent to military school as a boy. He liked the order, the discipline and the rules. That love of order would be reflected in his lifelong fascination with games and puzzles, and in his career. Art, he says, "is making order out of chaos."
After his parents divorced and his mother moved to Bucks County, Pa., she made a p0int of getting to know Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, who lived just up the road. The Hammersteins became "my surrogate parents," Sondheim says, and Oscar became his mentor.
It was Hammerstein who counseled Sondheim to take a job, at a mere 25, writing lyrics only for a new Broadway show being developed by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents. Hammerstein correctly predicted that it would do the fledging composer well to work with such accomplished artists. The show was "West Side Story," whose reviews cited the entire creative team, except for the lyricist.
Although he vowed never to take a lyrics-only job again, he did so anyway, after Hammerstein told him it would be good for him to learn to write music for a specific singer. That would be Ethel Merman, and the show was "Gypsy," with music by Jule Styne.
For a man considered to be the composer who changed the American musical, Sondheim is lavish in his appreciation of his forebears, including Hammerstein, of course, who he believes was not only a great lyricist but a superb and underrated playwright. As the great man neared the end of his life, Sondheim asked him to sign a photograph. He tells the story with difficulty, tears welling up as he recalls what Hammerstein wrote on the photo: "For Stevie, my friend and teacher."
When Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," he had to contend with being viewed as a lyricist who thought he could write music. That show was a hit, but his next, "Anyone Can Whistle," starring Angela Lansbury in her first stage musical, was a flop.
When he embarked on what would be the game-changer in his career and in the American musical, Sondheim consulted his friend Mary Rodgers, a composer in her own right and Richard Rodgers' daughter. Knowing nothing about marriage but wanting to explore it for a new musical, he asked the twice-married Mary Rodgers to tell him all about it and took notes.
The notes became the show "Company," the story of a single man whose friends are all married. He's resisted marriage for a long time, but at 35, he is realizing that life lived alone isn't always complete. We get to see the original Robert, Dean Jones, making one last attempt at the anthemic "Being Alive" in a recording session for the cast album. He nails it.
Although Sondheim comes across as disarmingly candid in interviews, his candor can be selective. He'll tell you about his mother trying to mess with his head by telling him that his birth was difficult when it wasn't at all, but you get only fleeting bits and pieces about his personal life. There may be clues, here and there in some of the songs, but he insists his work is not "about me in any conscious way." He'll allow that every composer's work reflects aspects of his or her personality, but insists that his songs are primarily rooted in the show's characters.
"I'm an actor when I'm writing songs," he says to explain how he puts himself into a character's skin to create what he calls his "conversational" songwriting style.
Lapine's direction is almost the star of "Six by Sondheim." Not only has he used the six songs to illuminate the composer's life, he organizes years and years of interviews as if they are an ongoing conversation -- which, in many ways, they are. They are the monograph of the life and art of a singular man, perfectly assembled, bit by bit, piece by piece.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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