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'Six by Sondheim' review: Must-Steve TV

Writer/composer Stephen Sondheim arrives at the special screening

Writer/composer Stephen Sondheim arrives at the special screening for DreamWorks Pictures' "Sweeney Todd" at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles. (Dec. 5, 2007) Credit: Getty Images

THE DOCUMENTARY "Six by Sondheim"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This is far more than just the stories behind six songs by Stephen Sondheim, 83, the master of the grown-up American musical. This is the intimate, far-reaching story of the man, told by the same man who created a dozen of so of the world's great musicals. James Lapine, who wrote the books and staged Sondheim's "Into the Woods," "Passion" and the Pulitzer-winning "Sunday in the Park with George," has directed this major documentary. And it does, indeed, tell terrific stories about "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story," "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along," "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music," "I'm Still Here" from "Follies," "Being Alive" from "Company" and "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park."

But Lapine has located rare archival footage from Broadway originals. He directed a delightful new video in what looks like Technicolor with Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan and America Ferrera as the hopeful young artists in "Merrily." Indie movie director Todd Haynes has staged a daring new version of "I'm Still Here," growled by rocker Jarvis Cocker (the Pulp) in an old-time supper-club.

Best of all, Lapine has meticulously spliced and edited lines from Sondheim interviews, back and forth through the years, so he seems to be telling the same stories as his looks change but his delivery remains the same. There are the familiar biographical details about his troubled relationship with his divorced mother, how he "osmosed" himself into the life of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. But this famously unsentimental, complicated man talks about falling in love for the first time at 60 and he tears up about the importance of teachers. And, most important, he talks about the making of art.

MY SAY How lucky we are to have these 90 smart minutes with one of the culture's true originals, who happens to be as articulate and precise and perceptive about life as he is about his craft. In 2010, Lapine directed some of this same material in a Broadway docu-musical called "Sondheim on Sondheim," but that now seems just a warm-up for this invaluable film.

BOTTOM LINE Riveting, important and lots of fun.


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