Stephen Sondheim’s big break came in 1957, when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents on West Side Story. Since then, the composer and lyricist has gone on to win a Pulitzer, an Oscar, eight Grammies and more Tony Awards than any other composer.
On December 9, HBO will take a peek behind the curtain of the Broadway legend’s creative process with Six By Sondheim, an original documentary that highlights a half dozen of his songs, telling the stories behind them and reimagining them with the help of talent like Todd Haynes, Autumn De Wilde, Audra McDonald, Jeremy Jordan and Jarvis Cocker.
Six By Sondheim director James Lapine, himself a Tony winner and frequent Sondheim collaborator—he wrote the script for the upcoming big-screen version of Into The Woods—spoke to DuJour about making the film and the painstaking process of selecting just six songs to celebrate.
Telling the story of someone’s half-century career in just six songs is quite an undertaking. How did you decide to take on this project?
What happened was I had done a show on stage called Sondheim on Sondheim, and [producer] Frank Rich and Sheila Nevins from HBO suggested it could be a documentary. I wasn’t really that interested in doing that kind of a piece—it was very much based on something for the stage—but in further conversations, I found a way to make it its own kind of animal for film rather than for stage.
How much digging did you have to do? There’s this archival footage that spans a lifetime.
You know, we had a fantastic editor. And the nice thing about working with HBO is had resources that we didn’t have when we were doing it onstage. Little by little, we were able to find one thing which leads to another thing… we were able to unearth a lot of stuff that we didn’t know existed. So it’s been over a two-year process putting the movie together. It’s been a long haul.
How did you settle on just six songs?
It was seven for a while. It was really about trying to figure out the arc of the story and the arc of his life, and finding songs that were of interest in and of themselves. It was a process of elimination from a list of 100 down to 50, down to 30, down to 15, etc. Slowly it revealed itself as what it should be.
I did want to ask you if there could be a seventh song, which would you pick?
I don’t even remember what the seventh song was.
Do you have a personal favorite that didn’t make it?
I don’t know anymore. You know, people will say, “Why didn’t you use this, why didn’t you use that,” but everyone has their favorites.
When it came to hiring people to work on the musical segments with you, how did you come to Todd Haynes and the other talent you have?
The initial concept—because this is how silly I was about it—was I could go out to a lot of film directors that I respect, and see if they would be interested in doing one of the songs. Initially, we were going to have six different directors do the six different songs. In theory that sounded like a good idea, so I thought it would really relieve me of a lot of work. Well, of course, it turned out to be endlessly time consuming and we had so many meetings with so many great directors who wanted to do it, but we were wrestling with their schedules and we were wrestling with budgets, and it got so out of control. I think in many ways, it makes the movie more interesting that you never quite know how the songs are going to be represented, and they’re represented in such different ways.
Did you learn anything new about your friend Mr. Sondheim while making this movie?
I’ve known and worked with him for 30 years, so I’m not sure there were any revelatory discoveries for me, but it was an interesting way for me to understand him a little better. What’s interesting to me is how Steve expresses himself and how he expressed himself through the ages.
You’ve been working on Into the Woods, which premiered in 1987 and is set to be next year’s big thing. Is there timelessness to Sondheim?
Oh, absolutely. That’s the work of a genius, frankly, is that its timeless. I think people will be preforming him and listening to him for a very long time. I think that speaks to who he is and what he writes about.
Is it fun going back to something like Into the Woods?
It’s not frankly all that much fun going back to things. I’m getting older and I always like to put my energies more into things that I haven’t done rather than into things I’ve already done. I can’t wait to see it, and I’m sure it’s going to be spectacular, but in the fun department for me, it’s all about doing something I haven’t done.
“Six by Sondheim” airs December 9 on HBO at 9 p.m. EST. Watch the trailer below: