THE BLOG
12/11/2013 08:29 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Six by Sondheim - The Artist and Teacher

"Teaching to me is the sacred profession and I cry when I talk about it. I'll probably cry now. But my life was saved by teachers, first a Latin teacher in high school, and then Oscar Hammerstein who was a teacher." When Stephen Sondheim makes this statement, it rings as true as his most heartfelt lyrics.

For the second time in a week, musical theater was front and center on American television. The first was NBC's The Sound of Music Live. Last night, it was a biographical film about legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Six by Sondheim on HBO is a vibrant portrait that goes beyond a typical biographical documentary. Producer/director James Lapine does more than aggregate previous Sondheim interviews; he gives us new takes on six selected songs that provide the framework of this piece.  We are still treated to special performances from the past as well as new performances that illustrate the continuing relevance of the work.  It is hard to call out examples without feeling an obligation to list them all.  

The mini film-within-the-film that was "Opening Doors" caused me to actually exclaim out loud. This section is particularly special considering the recent Fathom Events nationwide screening of the wonderful West End Merrily We Roll Along revival. Darren Criss, America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes may be a little young to do the entire show, but I'd love to see them give it a go for a film adaptation. And Sondheim himself appeared in a role that was more than ironic; it was inspired. 

Another Sondheim classic, "I'm Still Here," is given a completely new treatment not specific to Follies, the musical from which it is derived. Todd Haynes directs this marvelous vignette. We are in a fantasy cabaret, hearing the song delivered by a man! The variety of women watching Jarvis Cocker is a simply delicious way to present this iconic song. 

It is true that for most Sondheim fans there is little new ground covered in the interviews, but the film is thoughtfully constructed. The sheer variety of material they're bringing together to really give us a glimpse of this artist is astonishing. The editor, Miky Wolf, has transcoded, corrected, and reformatted with a magic touch. We see all of these various components come together as a finished whole, while maintaining the integrity of their original time and platform. 

Six by Sondheim lets the audience see an accomplished artist explore and critique his own work in a special way.  When Sondheim says, "If you have the privilege of being able to write it, you write it out of passion. That's what failure taught me," there is a lesson there beyond the art of making art.  We see how an examination of the arts, and one artist in particular, has lessons for every kind of life. Stephen Sondheim, and other artists like him, do not merely entertain; they are teachers.