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HBO's 'Six by Sondheim' Is So Good, It Cries Out for More
December 9, 2013  | By David Bianculli

HBO’s Six by Sondheim special, premiering Monday night at 9 ET, tells the story of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim while looking closely at six of his songs. Why stop there?...

It’s a smart, superbly researched and edited artistic biography, one with enough breadth and detail to satisfy two audiences at once. It should please those with only a passing knowledge of Sondheim and his landmark musical shows, from Company and Follies to Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George, because it explains and samples so much, so quickly. And for those who have had a long-time love affair with the works of Sondheim, Six by Sondheim provides more than nuggets of new information – and even a few rich veins – to please them as well.

The completeness and insight regarding the way the stories are told in Six by Sondheim are due, in what I’m sure is a very large part, to its two primary collaborators, because both can claim to know more about Sondheim, and to have had a longer association with him, than many others.

James Lapine, who wrote the book for and directed Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion and Sondheim on Sondheim (which this new HBO program resembles, in part, in both structure and content), is director and executive producer.  

And Lapine’s fellow executive producer is Frank Rich, the former New York Times drama critic who, in recent years, has hit the lecture tour with Sondheim, asking questions of the composer and fielding them from the audience.

One of the delights of Six by Sondheim is how it focuses on six songs in particular and, in some cases, restages them particularly for this telecast. It leads to some unusual tricks, and treats. In one, Sondheim himself makes a musical cameo appearance to play the part of the Broadway producer, in “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, and complain, quite wickedly, about the absence of “a tune you can hum.” In another, a cabaret-performance staging of “I’m Still Here” from Follies, the part usually sung by a veteran diva is given instead to a young male singer. All the regret and memories and pride and other emotions are reflected on the faces of the women in the audience – a unique approach, to say the least.

For a full review of Six by Sondheim, check out my report, which aired last Friday, for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  That day’s show also featured Terry’s 2010 interviews with Sondheim. Like Six by Sondheim, it’s all worth hearing, or seeing, to appreciate the most innovative artist in musical theater for the past 50 years.

Attention must be paid – and with Six by Sondheim, it is. Now, how about Six More?

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