How fortunate for Stephen Sondheim fans that the Broadway musical maestro came of age in the television era. The new HBO documentary Six By Sondheim, premiering Monday at 9/8c, digs deep into TV talk and news program archives to provide a fast moving yet intimate portrait of America's greatest living composer and lyricist. The film also includes several new music-video style interpretations of Sondheim compositions. One includes a cameo by the legend himself in a performance of Opening Doors with Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera, Laura Osnes and Darren Criss. Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who directed and co-executive produced Six By Sondheim, offered a glimpse into the filmmaking process.
TV Guide Magazine: What makes it the right time to look back at Sondheim's career?
James Lapine: It sort of grew out of a musical theater piece [Sondheim On Sondheim] I did when Stephen turned 80. I thought that I had this incredible gift in my life to be able to work with this man and spend 30 years in his company. I just wanted to share that with people, and let them see him beyond his reputation and his sort of legendary status, and see what he's like as a person and how stimulating it is to be in his company. From there, I was approached by HBO about doing a documentary. I didn't want to do one of the stage shows so we kind of hit upon this other concept.
TV Guide Magazine: When did he come in on it?
Lapine: The irony is, he didn't really come in on it. He just gave us his blessing to do it. And also working with his friend [and the film's co-executive producer] Frank Rich he basically just said, 'I trust you,' and didn't really look at anything until it was basically cut together, and had very little to say after that.
TV Guide Magazine: Did he enjoy watching it?
Lapine: I think he's flattered. His shows are his children so in a sense, this was an opportunity to kind of keep alive his work and share his life, and I think it was generous of him to do, and as he said, 'I'm really embarrassed by it and I'm really grateful for it.'
TV Guide Magazine: What was it like to direct him as a performer in Opening Doors?
Lapine: That was a trip. Well, tiptoeing, I guess would be the expression. We went through so many different kinds of permutations with this movie and originally, my concept was to have six different directors do six different versions of the song. But it turned into a massive undertaking to pull that off so I ended up choosing to be the one to do Opening Doors, and that was my idea. I thought, 'What will make this really worth seeing?' And I thought, 'Oh man, this will be so great if he does that part.' It sort of brings everything together at the end of the movie when he's playing this sort of nemesis of his youth.
TV Guide Magazine: He was funny.
Lapine: He was very game. Once he got on the set and started filming, he was very into it and was great. I just had to kind of make sure — he's not an actor or performer — that he was comfortable with what he had to do, and he was a good sport about it and I think at the end of the day, quite enjoyed it.
TV Guide Magazine: It's amazing how much of his life you were able to cover with found material that aired on television.
Lapine: We were able to find everything that we wanted to know about him basically within our footage or the footage that I had shot for the stage version. He and Frank Rich went through a couple of years where they traveled around with speaker agencies doing Q&A kind of thing, and we were able to slip in a little information we needed. I think, remarkable in that are no talking heads. You're doing a documentary about someone, and you really only basically hear from him, with one tiny exception was when we used that little Leonard Bernstein clip. It turned out to be kind of unusual in that respect.
TV Guide Magazine: You went from a black and white clip to a much more recent one, and he's telling the story with the same enthusiasm and tone. It didn't change.
Lapine: I know! You really do get to see somebody's life that way. Somebody said to me after the premiere screening, 'I also relived my own life just through the clothes and the hairdos.' It's just kind of like a little time capsule, as well, which is great. And he's so articulate and his memory is just so sharp. I think in one of those segments, we cut I think between five different eras, and it made a totally cohesive story because when he talks about Oscar Hammerstein, it never changed. He remembers it so well.
TV Guide Magazine: Not all of the people who do what he does at the level that he does are that good on television. He had such a comfort level on camera.
Lapine: Yeah, it is because I would say when I first met him, he was maybe not socially all that comfortable. I think he's passionate and has been about his work, and that's why he's so comfortable talking about it. I think if you asked him about world politics, or his mother or other subjects, he's less comfortable. But when he's talking about his work, it's very articulate and effortless. It's charming.