Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.
Last week we looked at the utterly forgettable doc The Out List which mistakes sometimes compelling interviews spliced together as enough of a premise for an entire film. While that film celebrated the visibility of coming out, implicitly praising those who wear their sexuality on their sleeves, presenting them as necessary for political activism, we focus today on a towering figure of the American musical stage whose sexuality is both an acknowledged fact but also rarely a rallying point.
You’d never refer to Stephen Sondheim as a “gay songwriter and lyricist” both because in many ways he predates that type of taxonomy but also because he exceeds it. Not that his sexuality hasn’t informed his work. He has, after all, written some of the most complex characters of the American musical theater tradition, all of whom wrestle with their own vexing and at times explicitly transgressive desires.
James Lapine’s Six By Sondheim is structured as a close study of six of the composer’s most famed songs, and only addresses his sexuality when they discuss Company a show that has long felt like a melancholy queer anthem. Perhaps that’s what one reviewer caught when he first saw the show: “As it stands now, it’s for ladies’ matinees, homos and misogynists,” wrote Variety. What emerges in Lapine’s documentary is a celebration of Sondheim — so many interviews with the composer over the years show he’s perhaps the most eloquent commentator of musical theater of the past century — but also a rather touching portrait of an older gay man looking back on his life, his relationship with his mother, and even his failed desire to be a father (“Art is the other way of having children,” he muses).