As collaborator on his last three original Broadway musicals, James Lapine has been granted the rare opportunity to get to know one of the greatest musical theater writers of our time, Stephen Sondheim. Now, with the new HBO documentary he directed and co-produced, Six by Sondheim, Lapine is giving Broadway fans an inside look at his friend Steve. Expanding on intimate interviews he first conducted for the 2010 Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim, the acclaimed film centers on the backstory of six great Sondheim songs and features original performances by stage faves including Audra McDonald, Will Swenson, Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes, Darren Criss and, believe it or not, the great Sondheim himself.
You’ve known Sondheim for years as a friend and collaborator. Was it weird to suddenly point a camera and start interviewing him?
There is a kind of box that you can put over the camera so that when the subject looks at the lens, they’re actually looking at your face. That’s how I did it so it felt conversational rather than, like, he’s on 60 Minutes or something.
You also dug up amazing archival interviews for Six by Sondheim. Any favorite old Sondheim hairdos?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that one where he’s talking about poetry in England where it looks like his hair is sort of blown out and flipped up. It’s wild. That hairdo’s definitely my favorite. That and the long-haired greasy look.
You’ve included some newly-filmed music videos of Sondheim songs, including “Opening Doors” with Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrara and Laura Osnes and Audra McDonald singing “Send in the Clowns." How did you get the idea to add those?
The initial idea was to get six different directors to do six songs. And that proved really difficult because the directors, who were all brilliant, wanted budgets that were so huge that we couldn’t afford them. But it was fun to get some younger people in the movie who were the right age and had the vocal chops to do it.
In an unexpected twist, Sondheim himself acts and sings in the movie as Joe, the skeptical theater producer in “Opening Doors.” How the heck did you get him to act for you?!
[Laughs.] That was the raison d’être of the whole thing! I just asked him and there was this long pause then he said many reasons why he shouldn’t do it, all of which I rebutted, and then he said fine.
What was it like on set that day?
He was very sick the day we did it. I tried to make it as painless and fun as possible, because I knew this was going a bit out on a limb. It was a tough little shoot—that entire song was shot on green screen on a turntable that never stopped turning. The only time it stopped was for his section. I think it’s great that it kind of screeches to a halt when he comes on screen. It was very easy actually. He’s got a little of a performer in him! It was a magical afternoon.
I can't wait for the Into the Woods movie. Did you walk on the set, gone into the woods?
It’s being shot in London so I didn’t go over there. Steve went over for all the vocal recording with the actors. I did write [the screenplay], so I did work from here closely with [director] Rob Marshall. It’s so many years later, so there’s a little level of detachment from it, which is a good thing because obviously to make a movie, you have to compromise some of the things from the original. In particular, some of the music had to be cut.
Can't wait to hear that new song for Meryl Streep’s Witch.
It’s beautiful. Smart and funny. And oh my god, is she talented. We all know that, but what I didn’t know is what an amazing singer she is. I’ve heard her sing in movies, but everyone is really surprised by the range and depth of her voice. It’s like she jumps through the speakers. It’s quite extraordinary.
And your Annie star Lilla Crawford is playing Little Red! Put in a good word for her?
Of course I put in a good word for her! She’s so beautiful. I think she’s just gonna glow on the screen.
Any chance Sunday in the Park with George could work as a film? Or is that one just too purely theatrical for the screen?
Yes is the answer!
Yes it could work?
Yeah, we had an offer way back when it opened on Broadway and I had it all plotted out but Steve didn’t want to make a movie. He really wanted to write another show, so we just filmed the stage production and then wrote Into the Woods instead.
So maybe it’ll still happen? Sounds like it’s all storyboarded in your head.
It’s all there! I don’t know. It’s not going to be Thor. It’s Sunday in the Park with George!
On the top of dream movie musicals, here's one non-Sondheim question: How about a film of William Finn's Falsettos?
That’s also been up and down over the years. It was bought by Disney way back and there’s been other interest in it, too. It’s interesting how a lot of AIDS projects are coming back now in film and TV. It might be a good time for it. When I saw the Normal Heart revival, I thought, “Maybe it’s time to do Falsettos again.”
What will probably happen is that we’ll do a theatrical revival and that will lead to a movie.
Any more adventures with Mr. Sondheim coming up in the future?
I don’t know. I think he’s working with David Ives these days. It seems he’s left me for another man. And I only wish them well! [Laughs.] How mature is that??
Six by Sondheim premieres on Monday, December 9 at 9PM on HBO.