October 17, 2021 The Newspaper Serving LGBT Los Angeles

In Two Sondheim Documentaries, Fact and Fiction Intertwine

Is there anyone who has done more for the American musical than Stephen Sondheim? Most people would probably say “no.” Sondheim himself, humble as ever, would probably say, “are you kidding? Of course!” and rattle off a list of names, starting with his first and most important mentor Oscar Hammerstein and ending with Jerome Kern.

Why is this important? Because it’s a little unbelievable. In an age where male icons are being cut down by the instant (rightly so!) it’s a little odd that the brilliant Sondheim himself should come off, in two separate documentaries, as so completely sweet and pure. Could it be that the man who wrote all this incredible music, these cutting and soulful lyrics, these hopeless and wonderful characters, could be just as wonderful himself?

Small mercies: Yes. For those of us who live on Sondheim lyrics, both the recent documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” and HBO’s “Six by Sondheim” are heartfelt revelations that barely even have to dip into sentimentality to bring a tear to the eye. While “Best Worst Thing” focuses on the short run of one of Sondheim’s few failures, the 1981 Broadway show “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Six,” an HBO documentary from some years ago, fills in a few holes by offering something of a Sondheim biography. But rather than going in a strictly linear fashion, “Six” puts the art first, looking at the life through the lens of the music rather than the other way around. Was this because Sondheim preferred it? Perhaps. Could it be because the work is too good to be tied to any kind of a traditional biographical context? Probably. With some artists, we need to lean on the story of the life to make the work more interesting. In Sondheim’s case, knowing that his mother wished he hadn’t been born might help us see how someone could write:

“Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass?

Bet your ass

But I’ve done that already, or didn’t you know love

Darling how could I leave

When I left long ago, love”

But it’s not strictly necessary. The beauty, the pleasure, and the pain of the work stands on its own without much need of a backstory.

In the case of “Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened,” of course, the backstory is the story. In the long, confusing life of “Merrily,” from its original much-criticized production to its original cast revival in 2001 to its continued, beloved life in repertory theater, the outside world has changed enough to create a cult favorite out of the play that ended Sondheim’s partnership with famed producer Hal Prince. We’ve grown as a culture since 1981, and perhaps have come to understand how important the work actually is since, in the words of Leonard Bernstein, no one has really come forward to do with the musical what he has done in the past 50 years. Because of this, “Best Worst Thing” isn’t just the story of a failed production whose extra-high hopes made that failure more crushing on the part of the youthful cast (everyone well under 40) and crew. The documentary, using clips of original cast members, starry-eyed and youthful, against interviews with those cast members now, draws a clear line from the story of the play (the dreams of youth will be crushed and give way to age) to the reality of life as Sondheim and Prince knew it in 1981, and as we know it now. It’s this element that makes “Best Worst Thing” heartbreaking and beautiful, and, in the way of all the greatest Sondheim creations from “A Little Night Music” to “Follies” to “Gypsy,” it’s the thing that makes us remember why we love the work in the first place. The absolute, pure honesty of everything, the way it seems to predict what we do before we do it, the foresight that makes Sondheim’s worldview not depressing, but somehow idealistic, clear-eyed, hopeful, and new.

Related Posts

Sex and the City Star Willie Garson Dead At 57

September 28, 2021

September 28, 2021

Acclaimed actor and Los Angeles resident Willie Garson passed away on September 21 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer,...

Elvira Shocks Fans By Coming Out Of The Closet

September 28, 2021

September 28, 2021

Just in time for Halloween, the spook queen herself, Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira, has come out of the closet.  In...

Britney Spears Announces Engagement

September 15, 2021

September 15, 2021

Britney Spears and boyfriend Sam Asghari have announced their engagement.  Asghari’s talent manager Brandon Cohen of BAC Talent confirmed in...

QFilms Long Beach Returns

September 15, 2021

September 15, 2021

QFilms Long Beach, Long Beach’s oldest film festival, returns September 30 – October 3 to celebrate the diversity of LGBTQ...

Lady Gaga Announces New Album Dropping In October

August 15, 2021

August 15, 2021

Oscar and Grammy winner Lady Gaga has announced that she will be dropping a new album set to be released...

Lil Nas X Releases New Music Video “Industry Baby”

July 26, 2021

July 26, 2021

Lil Nas X has shared the music video for his new song “Industry Baby”. Directed by Christian Breslauer the video...

Gaywatch: Back To The Beach

July 14, 2021

July 14, 2021

On Saturday July 10th Venice Pride hosted Gaywatch: Back To The Beach, a queer dance party at the only gay-owned...

WeHo Poet Laureate Reviews LGBTQ Documentray “Senior Prom”

June 24, 2021

June 24, 2021

West Hollywood poet Laureate, RENT Poet founder and author of “The Poetry of Strangers: What I Learned Traveling America with...

Backstreet Boys & *NSYNC Partner Up For “Bingo Under The Stars” Pride Event At The Grove

June 19, 2021

June 19, 2021

On June 18th The Grove hosted “Bingo Under The Stars” as a charitable Pride event at The Grove’s Level 8....

“WeHo Sounds” Free Virtual Concert Series

June 11, 2021

June 11, 2021

The City of West Hollywood kicks-off “WeHo Sounds”, a free Friday evening virtual concert series on June 18. Concerts will...

Buzzfeed’s Docuseries “The Andrea Mares Project”

June 11, 2021

June 11, 2021

BuzzFeed’s As/Is presents “The Andrea Mares Project,” a docuseries that shadows Andrea Mares, a trans-feminine Latinx, as she embarks on...

LGBTQ Center Long Beach Screening “The Wizard Of Oz”

June 6, 2021

June 6, 2021

Celebrate LGBTQ Pride with an interactive screening of The Wizard of Oz, a fundraiser for the LGBTQ Center Long Beach. ...

West Hollywood Declares May 23rd “Born This Way Day”

May 23, 2021

May 23, 2021

The City of West Hollywood is celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Lady Gaga’s hit song Born This Way by...

LA Pride Announces LGBTQ Cinespia Event At Hollywood Forever Cemetery

May 23, 2021

May 23, 2021

In honor of 2021’s “Thrive With Pride” theme LA Pride has announced a special night at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. ...

Michael Mayo Finds Freedom on Debut Album “Bones”

May 23, 2021

May 23, 2021

Bisexual rising vocalist, songwriter and instrumentalist Michael Mayo will be debuting his newest album.  Mayo’s genre-defying, highly personal debut solo...