HBO is running a pretty great little documentary about the life and work of Stephen Sondheim. While you’re enjoying some downtime with family over the holidays, take some time to watch this beautifully crafted show. How many times can you watch Elf anyway?
(Answer: A LOT!)
The documentary, running 87 minutes, includes lots of performance footage along with interesting back story for 6 of Sondheim’s most famous songs.
There are clips from decades of interviews as well as new interview footage of Sondheim talking about his life and how he got into composing.
Long story short, when his parents divorced, his mom became friends with the Hammerstein family, who had a son Stephen’s age. Oscar Hammerstein became an influential mentor to Stephen. Sondheim says, “If Oscar had been an archeologist I would be an archeologist right now.” But Oscar Hammerstein was a renowned musical writer and producer. So Stephen Sondheim became one of those.
The most fascinating element of the show, along with the musical history anecdotes, is the incredibly informative peek into Sondheim’s creative process. He tells us what Hammerstein taught him. He explains how he writes songs and how he makes them better. It’s a treat to hear him talk through the inception and development of the song “Something’s Coming” for Tony in Westside Story and how he was inspired by the image of Tony as a baseball player.
6 By Sondheim reminds me of one of my favorite books, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. It is an inspiring read and this documentary is inspiring as well. Both portray creativity not as a lucky lightning strike from the muse, but as a process — a way of thinking, working, and problem-solving.
It’s packed full of gems for artists, performers, writers, and music aficionados alike:
“To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort.”
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“Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people.”
“A song should have a beginning, middle, and end. You begin with an idea. You state the idea, build and develop it, and at the end you should be at a place different from where you began.”
Sondheim describes teaching as a sacred profession, and that’s what he does in this show.
It’s pretty great. I hope you get a chance to watch it and enjoy the magic of these 6 songs because, remember, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!
Photo Source: Wiki Commons