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Writer/Director James Lapine On His New Documentary, Six By Sondheim

Six by Sondheim, a new HBO documentary directed by Stephen Sondheim's long-time collaborator James Lapine, focuses on six of the musical theater legend's songs ("Something's Coming," "Opening Doors," "Send in the Clowns," "I'm Still Here," "Being Alive" and "Sunday") to tell the story of his life, from growing up with Oscar Hammerstein to his Broadway debut, West Side Story, to falling in love for the first time at 60 years old. We chatted with Lapine about making the film -- which includes new performances of the songs by the likes of Audra McDonald, Jarvis Cocker (pictured), Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan -- and what it revealed about his friend.

How did you choose these six songs out of Sondheim's expansive catalogue?

It was really about what songs would best serve to cover the breadth of [Sondheim's] life, his work and his methodology. We had to have six that were chronological and were individual in different ways. They just sort of revealed themselves to us in time.

It was surprising to hear Sondheim say his most autobiographical song is "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along.

I agree. I think he means the [song is the] most literally autobiographical in terms of place and time, but of course so many of his songs are complete reflections of him. I can't lay claim to it but [I think] "Opening Doors" is based on very specific people and one of them is himself, so I think that's the other reason he looks at it as his most autobiographical.

There's some amazing archival footage in the film of Sondheim when he was just starting out.

We're so lucky to have a subject that has 50 years of archival footage available. He came of age when TV was born. Hearing him speak about times prior to when I met him was really interesting, like in that Hart Perry [1973 documentary] where he talks almost bitterly about his work and his life. It was good to see that part of him; when he was a little down in the dumps, and not so optimistic about the business and his place in it.

Oscar Hammerstein was such a big influence on Sondheim, but their music is so different. Were you aware of how close they were?

When I first started working with [Sondheim] I was kind of a musical theater dummy, so filming this documentary was kind of revelatory for me. After all these years, I started to understand what a complicated and interesting guy Hammerstein was, and how Steve has a lot of his same personality and professional traits.

He talked a little bit about his romantic life, but he didn't give too many details. Did you feel like he wanted to open up or was it hard to get him to talk about it?

I think he opened up as much as he chose to open up. Steve comes from another era of propriety and privacy -- a time when you just didn't talk about your life. Also, I think the work reflects his life...and I didn't feel in any way compelled to push him further.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim song (not including ones from the musicals you've worked on with him)?

I have a few favorites though I wouldn't say I have "one favorite." I love the song "The Road you Didn't Take" from Follies. It's not a showstopper, but I think it's kind of extraordinary. I also love "Anyone Can Whistle."

Photo courtesy of Six by Sondheim

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