Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SIX BY SONDHEIM: My review

A new documentary premiered last night on HBO that I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s called SIX BY SONDHEIM. Now before you roll your eyes and say, “yet another Stephen Sondheim tribute? Isn’t that the fifth one today?” -- this one is different. It’s very much about the creative process as explained by a thoughtful, articulate, consummate artist. You won’t see this stuff on REAL SPORTS with Bryant Gumbel.

I’m always fascinated by the creative process as it applies to writing. Even though I’ve been doing it for xihety3ytpw years, I’m always looking for new tips, new ways to maybe improve the process. Artists create in so many different ways. Sondheim writes his lyrics lying down with a yellow pad and soft-lead pencil.  He tries not to compose too much music at the piano because his left hand doesn’t play as well as his right so it will often revert back to familiar chords. That’s something I didn’t know. And the ninety-minute documentary is filled with those nuggets. I didn't know he drank while he wrote either.  See?  I get useful tips that I can use in my own writing. 

He explains the thinking behind certain songs. He discusses the difference between lyric writing, which can be poetic, and poetry. He explains how Cole Porter used to write. He shares how Oscar Hammerstein II approached songwriting as if he were writing short stories.

Sondheim offers some great observations of other writers as well. My favorite was from William Faulkner. According to Sondheim, Faulkner once said a writer needs three things: imagination, observation, and experience. He can get away with having only two of those but no less than two.

There are also some terrific idiotic quotes. Frank Sinatra explaining the meaning of “Send In The Clowns”: “You fall in love with a girl, she leaves you, send in the clowns.”

Most of the footage comes from various TV interviews over the years and the filmmakers really did their homework. I had no idea he had been a guest on every talk show except Diablo Cody’s. But the interviews are cobbled together to make one cohesive commentary even though from paragraph to paragraph he goes from 80 years-old to 20 to 45 to 60. He even switches back and forth between color and black-and-white. 

Among the topics explored in the documentary: collaboration, mentoring, hits, flops, dealing with failure, a song’s purpose, defending your work, puzzles, peer pressure, coping with critics, writing as if you were an actor, the moments of joy and hours of frustration, and using Joan Crawford’s career as an inspiration for a song.

Sprinkled in are a few tid bits of his personal life. Stephen was an only child and when his mother was being wheeled into the OR to have a pacemaker implanted she gave him a note that said, “I have only one regret in my life and that is giving you birth." The fact that he became a gifted composer and not the guy who shot up a crowded movie theater says a lot about his character.   And therapy.

The SIX in the title highlights six particular songs. For “Send In The Clowns” they do a montage of different singers tackling the song. Judy Collins and Barbra Streisand are magnificent, Cher is a joke. Audra McDonald (now the go-to gal for any Broadway-related show on any channel) also sang “Send In The Clowns” and as always, killed.  Carrie Underwood was nowhere to be found.

Some of the other showcased songs were less successful. The worst was “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker sung in a decedent pre-war Berlin setting. On every level: What the fuck?!

The overall message of the program was write what you love. Write with passion. Respect and learn from past masters and pay it forward if you are lucky enough to succeed. Also, stay out of Ethel Merman’s way.

His many words were music to my ears. SIX BY SONDHEIM airs periodically on any of the twelve HBO channels and HBO GO. It’s 85 minutes of great television. Fast forward through the Jarvis Cocker mess.

27 comments:

An (is my actual name) said...

You know, I kinda love that Sinatra quote.

Johnny Walker said...

Definitely going to check this out. Thanks for writing about it.

Anonymous said...

Jarvis Crocker? Whoever he is, he stinks. What was Lapine thinking? Everything else was grea, especially Audra.

Igor said...

Even putting aside the words, "Send in the Clowns" is as sad as any song can be. It simply SOUNDS sad. As if it somehow taps a very specific region of the brain - some atavistic ganglion for sadness.

(Phew. For weeks I've been trying to find a place to use "atavistic ganglion".)

But seriously... Anyone know why that might be? What makes the music (even before the lyrics) so effin' sad?

Kirk said...

You forced me to look up the lyrics just to see exactly how off-base Sinatra might be.

Kirk said...

Among other things, I believe the song is about a reltionship breaking up, which doesn't necessarily mean one person leaving the other, but those seem to be the only type of breakups that Sinatra would ever consider.

As for "clowns" I think the meaning of that word changes from stanza to stanza.

Michael said...

Sondheim came to our marvelous performing arts center in Las Vegas for a "conversation" that included performances of some of his songs and commentary about them. It was wonderful. He is wonderful. I don't get HBO, but I'll get this one.

chalmers said...

In the all-time great Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled," Krusty opens his comeback special by taking the song's title literally and altering Sondheim's lyrics. I'm not sure how old my children should be when I explain to them the actual meaning of the song.

It was a wonderful show, and it justifies your faith in human goodness when Oscar Hammerstein offered him the support and kindness that he didn't get from his mother.

I've heard his story about the Hammerstein inscription several times, but it always gets to me.

Heidi said...

After devouring his two-tome collection of lyrics and essays about writing (which I highly recommend), I didn't expect to be as inspired by Six By Sondheim. The interviews allowed for the element of emotion, which made it all feel transcendent. Not to mention the terrific irony of Sondheim playing the dismissive producer in "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along. What a delight!

Dixon Steele said...

Like many perfectionists, Sondheim doesn't always work quickly. But he had no choice with CLOWNS, as it was an out-of-town replacement (for his great musical A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC), and he had to come up with something virtually overnight.

Perhaps the lesson here is, greatness doesn't always have to be a struggle...of course it helps if you're a Sondheim.

Mike in Seattle said...

Looking forward to seeing this. My favorite version of Send in the Clowns: Angela Lansbury accompanied by piano, no other instruments.

Zappa the Unholy said...

I'll have to check it out. I saw a documentary yesterday on showtime that you'd probably like. It was called Comedy Warriors. Lewis Black (genius), Bob Saget and some other comics giving advice to wounded vets who want to do standup. Those cats were legit funny. Pretty inspiring and damned awesome.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Glad to hear that it's so good. I've always been a fan of Sondheim, but without a TV I'll have to buy it. I'm happy to know that it's worth the money.

Powerhouse Salter said...

I haven't seen the documentary, but do hope that Sinatra's comment isn't the only stab at deciphering "Send In The Clowns." The title is a reference to the circus emergency tactic of sending out clowns to divert audience attention after a tightrope walker loses balance and is killed or injured hitting the ground. .

Chris said...

As already suggested, you must, must, must read his two books. The Meryle Secrest bio is also terrific. While I agree with you on the actual performance of "I'm Still Here," I thought the visuals were spectacular--and really the point of the song (since it's been done to death by so many). Those women WERE the "woman" he was singing about, and they knew it. The one shot of the youngest woman at the end, when she looks around and realizes what she may become (or what she might already be) just floored me. It also proved to me that Lapine could easily be a movie director. I know how I'm marking my Emmy ballot next year.

Kenneth Kleemann said...

In response to Igor, I don't think Send In The Clowns is as sad as any song can be. Check out Gloomy Sunday, aka The Hungarian Suicide Song which was reportedly banned by BBC radio for some years.

My favorite version is this one:

http://youtu.be/dDQfhnk309s

Now don't any of you fine folks go commit suicide.

Kenneth Kleemann said...

And as for what makes it sad, slow tempo and a minor key.

Anonymous said...

Except it is in Dflat major.

Igor said...

@Kenneth Kleemann,

Thanks, but IMO it's not even close.

Maybe the lyrics of that song are troubling, but apart from the lyrics, the music is merely... melancholy?

Greg Ehrbar said...

"Is That All There Is?" which was a huge hit for Peggy Lee in 1968, has to be one of the most depressing records ever. In fact, some call it the "Suicide Song."

But I think the recording is more sad than the song due to Randy Newman's gut-wrenching string arrangment, especially in the last verse. Moaning, weeping, pleading. Yikes.

(Quick, change the station and see if someone's playing "Shrimp Boats!")

Lorimartian said...

I'm glad you wrote about this, Ken. I probably would have come across it in time, but now I'll seek it out. I can't believe he's 83 years old. From the little I've read, it's so ironic that the mother who regretted his birth inadvertently laid the groundwork for his stunning success when she befriended the Hammerstein family.

Thanks for calling attention to this program.

jbryant said...

Chris: James Lapine did direct a couple of feature films in the '90s, IMPROMPTU and LIFE WITH MIKEY, both decent. Also a couple of TV movies and an American Playhouse production of his and Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS.

scottmc said...

I don't receive HBO but a movie house in New York is showing it. Twice I have taken my daughter to CD signings at which Sondheim appeared . On both occasions he was very generous and gracious to her. She is only 8 but he made a lifetime impression on her. (Sondheim also made a memorable appearance on 'The Simpsons'.)

joanneinjax said...

Watched this last night and was mesmerized, with the exception of Jarvis whoever. Sondheim was fascinating and the performances - for the most part - were great.

Thanks for reminding me it was on.

SymphonyScott said...

Credit or blame for the Jarvis Cocker "I'm Still Here" segment goes to terrifically talented director Todd Haynes. I'm in the "credit" camp myself -- I thought it was perfectly cast (absolutely agree with Chris above) and wonderfully shot. Loved the whole documentary, in fact. Anyone know if it's Oscar-eligible?

Anonymous said...

Just catching up on this on demand and the "I'm Still Here" portion was by far the most successful segment. It involved actual, non-literal interpretation of the song, not just an easy belt for an already much-loved diva.

rafael storm said...

"...by Jarvis Cocker sung in a decedent pre-war Berlin setting."

Did you mean "decadent"? "Decedent" is a word, but in this context?