'Six by Sondheim': Darren Criss, America Ferrera give fresh voice to Stephen Sondheim classics

"Gypsy." "A Little Night Music." "Sweeney Todd." "Follies." "Company."

Stephen Sondheim's credits -- and that's a sampling -- are staggering. He's won eight Tony Awards, more than any other composer and lyricist. And though he has been an incredible force since he burst on the scene with his first Broadway project, "West Side Story," Sondheim, 83, is reserved about himself.

HBO's "Six by Sondheim" on Monday, Dec. 9, though, manages to paint an intimate portrait of the man, examining his career through six signature songs.

In one of very few interviews granted for this project, Sondheim tells Zap2it that though he had seen a few edits of this film, he doesn't like to watch himself.

"I am embarrassed to see myself," Sondheim says. "I have seen myself on-screen quite a lot."

This features wonderful footage of Sondheim, including photos from his youth, being mentored by family friend Oscar Hammerstein, and of talk show appearances dating back to when Sondheim was clean-shaven, and Broadway composers and lyricists went on talk shows.

Sondheim talks about his love of military school, his parents' painful divorce when he was 10 and how he adored his father.

"I wanted to do what Oscar did," Sondheim says of Hammerstein in the film. "If he had been an archaeologist, I would have been an archaeologist."

Sondheim, a Broadway fixture, has a theater named for him. He is as close to New York royalty as one can get, and on Nov. 18, HBO screened the film at the Museum of Modern Art, then held a party for him at the Four Seasons.

Broadway actors who had sung his songs over the decades made their way to his corner table. To realize his impact, go back to 1957's "West Side Story." The film has footage of beautiful performances, including one of Larry Kert, a young performer who finds his confidence while performing "Something's Coming."

Though "West Side Story" earned rave reviews, Sondheim was overlooked. To help Sondheim get noticed, Leonard Bernstein -- who wrote the music -- offered to remove his name from the lyrics and adjust the royalties.

"Oh, who cares about royalties?" Sondheim quotes his younger self in the film. "If only someone put a gag in my mouth."

He wrote "Gypsy" for the then-reigning queen of musical theater, Ethel Merman. The film features previously unseen footage of Merman in "Gypsy," shimmying as Gypsy Rose Lee. The film was made surreptitiously, and kudos to executive producers James Lapine and Frank Rich and producer Liz Stanton for tracking down this bit of theater history.

Sondheim tells a wonderful anecdote about Merman, who swore like a drunken stevedore. She was a guest on "The Loretta Young Show."

Young was prim, and if people cussed on set, they had to pay 25 cents into a curse jar. Merman cursed repeatedly, finally handed Young a $10 bill and told her what to do with herself.

In the interview, Sondheim says of Merman, "She knew what she wanted. She was pretty unmovable when she took a stand, and it was very hard to get her to change things. I can't say she was difficult. She was not pliable."

Sondheim has worked with most musical theater stars, and his life in the theater began with the first Broadway show he saw, 1936's "White Horse Inn" starring Kitty Carlisle. At this writing, the most recent play he had seen was the current revival of "The Glass Menagerie."
Sondheim does not comment on other people's plays -- neither to praise nor condemn.

"There is no way to give an opinion without indirectly hurting someone's feelings indefinitely," he says, very conscious of his place in theater history.

He's reworking "Company" because he wanted to work with director John Tiffany.

"Sometimes there is joy" in revisiting works, Sondheim says. "Sometimes there isn't. The fun to the theater is you can interpret plays differently, and that keeps them alive. Good, bad or indifferent, it's always interesting as opposed to movies and television. The actors on a movie never change. The nice thing about the theater is the same production Tuesday to Wednesday is different. The audience is part of every show."

The film manages to take six well-known songs and, under Lapine's sharp direction, presents each differently. "Something's Coming" ("West Side Story") is the black-and-white clip of Kert finding his voice. Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, America Ferrera, Jackie Hoffman, Laura Osnes and Sondheim sing "Opening Doors" ( "Merrily We Roll Along") on a rooftop in a number performed for this film.

"I'm Still Here" ( "Follies") is a bold choice. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp is on a small nightclub stage, singing the ballad about an older woman trying to stay in show business. The camera pans on older women, desperately trying to look younger, as the truth of Sondheim's words resonates with them.

The film takes advantage of YouTube in a fun montage that includes Frank Sinatra, Cher and Glynis Johns singing "Send In the Clowns" ( "A Little Night Music"), the song that was written for Johns' breathy voice. There is also a new segment in which Audra McDonald and Will Swenson perform the number.

"Being Alive" ("Company") shows the original cast, including Elaine Stritch, crowded into a recording booth making the record. And "Sunday" is a clip from "Sunday in the Park With George" featuring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.

Of all of these, Sondheim reflects, just one was a bona fide hit.

"The only song I have ever had that was a big hit was 'Send In the Clowns,' and I was surprised by it," he says. "Nobody but Bobby Short sang it, and then Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra. Since the rock era came in, hit songs come from bands and not movies and shows. The only times songs become hits is when a performer sings it. Prior to the rock era, of course, hit songs did come from shows."
Photo/Video credit: HBO