7 Things We Learned From James Lapine
By Jerry Portwood
Darren Criss in a scene from 'Opening Doors' in 'Six by Sondheim'
Whether you're a Stephen Sondheim completist or a complete neophyte, Six by Sondheim, the new HBO documentary that premiered last night, offers insight for anyone interested in the creative process. Rather than fill the film with illustrious talking heads, gabbing about how Sondheim is a genius, the documentary cobbles together archival and new interviews with the legendary musical theater composer, to let him narrate the story of his life and career through the creation of six memorable songs: “Something’s Coming,” “Opening Doors,” “Send in the Clowns,” “I’m Still Here,” “Being Alive,” and “Sunday.” Some of the most memorable moments are the reworkings of these works created for the doc including, as Sondheim confesses, what is his only autobiographical song, "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along, that features Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, and America Ferrera.
We caught up with the doc's director, Broadway legend James Lapine—who wrote the book and directed the Sondheim musicals Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Passion—to ask him what motivated him to work on his first documentary and if there were any Sondheim surprises along the way. "I am not easily surprised," he informed us. "But it was fun since it became the history of musical theater. It's fascinating to know what goes into the making of anything. I hope it becomes a teaching tool for generations to come."
On the new numbers in the documentary:
Initially, my thought was that I was going to have six different directors the six different segments. I thought it would be really interesting to see what other people would come up with. We went to Todd Haynes, and he said, "Oh my god, I'd love to do that. I have a really interesting idea." It turned out great. It's so unexpected. It is bizarre; it's polarizing, you either love it or hate it. So I thought, This is going to be easy; I'm not going to have do anything. But it took forever to find the other people. We had other interesting people, but it was impossible to free up their schedules or to work on the budget we needed to do it on.
On casting America Ferrera:
I didn't know she could sing. I just thought she was just a very special spirit.
On working with Audra McDonald:
I think she's fucking amazing. She just 'gets' the harder things in such a beautiful way.
On whether it was difficult to cut songs from the documentary that he worked on and loved?
Not really, the songs had to function in a way to tell a story. It's odd because it came down to whether they made the most sense in the context, it wasn't like we were trying to say these are his "best" songs. In the context of his life, these songs reflect on what we were trying to talk about and trying to dramatize. Other songs may be better songs, but they don't have interesting backstories, so there wasn't much you could say about them. These particular six songs had really interesting stories to tell.
On his working relationship with former NYTimes theater critic Frank Rich, the executive producer of the documentary:
I came late to the theater and still had a lot to learn about Steve. I've known Frank in passing, but we had a very very close mutual friend, Wendy Wasserstein, so I knew him just socially through her. But we were not friends, so this was an interesting thing, getting together and working with him. I'm really thrilled I had the opportunity to work with such a wonderful, great guy. Plus, he's much more knowledgable about Sondheim than I am.
On the news that Sondheim's re-working Company to have Bobby be a gay man:
His stuff is so turned inside-out constantly, it wasn't a total shock. I'm torn about it. The author of that show, [George Furth], is no longer with us. You have to wonder, What would he say about it? I think that George would probably want to re-write it according to the times, but I don't think he'd be against it. I think he'd argue: "It's not written that way for the time it's set in," that's just me projecting what George Furth would say. I think Company's such a period piece. I guess what I blanche about a little bit is: Would those couples make sense in today's time? But would I go see it? Absolutely? We've all seen that show a hundred times, it would be fun to see it done another way.
On directing Sondheim for the "Opening Doors" number:
It was the first time I directed him, now that you mention it. He did one other acting gig, on a PBS show, [ titled June Moon], that Burt Shevelove directed. But this seemed like a good hook, that song and his life, and to have him be a performer in it as it were. There was a very long pause when I asked him, but he was pretty game. Until, like most of us, the day comes that you have to do it. Then you're like, "Oh shit." Steve was sick the day we shot it, but he was great, a trooper.
Watch a clip of the "Opening Doors" number starring Darren Criss, America Ferrera & Jeremy Jordan from Six by Sondheim below: