Thursday, April 14, 2016

Six-y Music

The HBO documentary Six by Sondheim has been sitting on my "to watch" pile for quite some time. As much as I enjoy the music of Stephen Sondheim, I wasn't necessarily sure that I'd enjoy this movie -- or at least, what I supposed this movie might be: a long view biography of the composer. If I'd had a better idea of the documentary's actual content, I'd have made more a priority of watching it.

Six by Sondheim examines the career of Stephen Sondheim by way of six particular songs -- "Something's Coming" (from 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). By focusing on specific examples rather than generally doting on the man's illustrious career, the movie is really able to dive into technique. It's not "first he did this musical, then he did that musical...", but rather "here's what he experimenting with in this song, here are the lessons he learned from that song..."

And the main throughline of it all is: here's how Sondheim works. The film blends footage of interviews with Sondheim from all throughout his career (alongside brand new interviews). Again and again, it's made clear that Sondheim is not one to leave creativity to whimsy or muse. There are specific principles that govern his work. He thinks very carefully about character and performer, and his compositions are informed by that deep thinking. When he fields questions from actors ("why did you write it this way?"), he always seems to have an answer, thought about ahead of time, never concocted haphazardly on the spot.

It's also clear from the documentary that Sondheim's skill as a teacher might be even greater than his skill as a composer. Some of the film's interviews are actually conducted in front of students (such as the clips from James Lipton's famous Inside the Actors Studio series), and those students are clearly enraptured -- and for good reason. And in his interactions with actors, Sondheim always wants to guide and illuminate rather than swing the cudgel of authorial intent.

These fascinating insights into the creative process are interspersed with actual performances of the songs in question -- sometimes in archival footage, sometimes in newly created "music videos" featuring performers like Audra McDonald, Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, and America Ferrera. Sondheim himself even steps into a role during "Opening Doors" (according to him, the only autobiographical song he ever wrote).

Given how few creative people can speak articulately about the creative process (or, indeed, how some have no real process at all), it's refreshing to glimpse inside the mind of someone so disciplined. And, quite simply, so genius. I give Six by Sondheim a B+.

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