April 20, 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

Lil Nas X “Satan Shoes” Controversy

April 9, 2021

April 9, 2021

Since releasing his controversially queer-positive music video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” gay singer/rapper Lil Nas X has had...

Trans Los Angeles A Film Full Of Queer Latinx Talent

April 4, 2021

April 4, 2021

Trans Los Angeles is an anthology composed of four short films directed and written by transgender director Kase Peña. Each...

New Harry Potter Video Game Will Feature Trans Witches & Wizards

March 14, 2021

March 14, 2021

The newest Harry Potter video game titled Hogwarts Legacy will allow players to create trans characters.  The game will allow...

Disney Shuts Down Studio Making First Feature Film With Queer Lead Character

February 25, 2021

February 25, 2021

Disney has shut down a studio that was making the company’s first feature length animated feature with a queer lead,...

Lady Gaga Oreos Have Hit The Shelves

February 11, 2021

February 11, 2021

Oreo has released a fitting neon green and pink version of their famous cookie in partnership with Lady Gaga celebrating...

Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Played Mark Twain, Dies At 95

February 3, 2021

February 3, 2021

Hal Holbrook, the actor best known for his accurate portrayal of Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain —...

We-Drive Ins Opening New Location In Santa Monica

January 28, 2021

January 28, 2021

WE Drive-Ins has announced the opening of an exclusive premiere drive-in experience featuring all new release films, with their newest...

Trailblazing Actress Cicely Tyson Dies At 96

January 28, 2021

January 28, 2021

Iconic actress, former model and civil rights activist Cicely Tyson has died at the age of 96.  Tyson’s manager Larry...

Award Decorated Actress, Cloris Leachman, Dead At 94

January 27, 2021

January 27, 2021

Cloris Leachman, Oscar and Emmy winning actress, has died at the age of 94 from natural causes at her home...

Adult Film Star Armond Rizzo Calls Out Studio For Paying Tops More Than Bottoms

January 14, 2021

January 14, 2021

Adult entertainer Armond Rizzo claims that a studio called Blacks on Boys — the self-proclaimed “home to the best interracial”...

LGBTQ Marching Band Performs During Thanksgiving Day Parade For First Time In History

November 29, 2020

November 29, 2020

The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps, an LGBTQ marching band, performed during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade making it...

Tubi Increases LGBTQ+ Programming

November 22, 2020

November 22, 2020

In a day and age where representation matters Tubi, a free streaming service, is currently offering a premium selection of...

#FreeBritney Rally

November 19, 2020

November 19, 2020

Fans of Britney Spears, one of the most popular pop stars in the world, performed at a Free Britney rally...

Britney Spears Loses Conservatorship Battle

November 15, 2020

November 15, 2020

Legendary pop princess Britney Spears has been in a long and drawn out court battle to remove her father, James...

WeHo Sounds Virtual Concert Series

November 12, 2020

November 12, 2020

The City of West Hollywood is launching its 2020-21 WeHo Sounds Free Virtual Concert Series, which will take place on...