In lieu of a new Sondheim show, the airing tonight of Six by Sondheim on HBO qualifies as an event for fans. I'm gratified that the great interview clips that showed throughout the otherwise mediocre Roundabout revue Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 have been put to the purpose for which they seemed obviously intended--I remember writing, in a notice for the Sondheim Review, that they looked like excerpts from an inevitable PBS documentary. Alas, since it's HBO, not PBS, that will be airing the doc, I won't be seeing it, at least not right away.
But it has been universally praised by folks I respect; I come not to bury Six by Sondheim but to footnote it. Since none of the six iconic songs the documentary makers have chosen to illustrate Sondheim's career/life story comes from the show that is arguably his crowning achievement, I'll take this excuse to excerpt my own interview with the man, from a 2011 issue of American Theatre. On the topic of what is apparently, and somewhat soberingly, his most personal show:
One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should.
It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.
Coming out of the theatre in London a few years back, I heard someone saying, "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim."
(Laughs.) Well, that describes exactly the British attitude.