Sondheim’s childhood play and how his teacher could never see him as a star

Written by By Kate Mara, Dhanya Shah and Robert Ballard, CNN

Stephen Sondheim is immortalized in Hollywood movies and as a member of the Kennedy Center Honors’ list of honorees. But the iconic composer wasn’t always treated as a legend. When he was a boy growing up in Queens, N.Y., his stage presence wasn’t as intimidating as the audience might believe. Instead, his teacher, Prof. Mary Ott (better known as Melvyn), suggested he play an elaborate one-act comedy for a class project on George Bernard Shaw.

In reality, it was just a chess game, one that Sondheim failed to win. Yet Ott took him under her wing, preparing him for a career in the theater. And for three years, she became his acting coach, rehearsing him on miming in public in case he did get a part. Sondheim was ultimately cut from the project and made a name for himself as an author.

In the documentary, “Stephen Sondheim: The Essential Musical Dramatist Who Taught Us to Hear,” directed by Kate Mara and Dhanya Shah, we learn this painful detail and much more about the artist behind “West Side Story,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “The People in the Picture” and countless other works.

An interview with Sondheim’s sister in the film follows, highlighting the affection between the siblings. Mary Sondheim recalls their differences as girls. She recalled how she was “a beautiful, confident, modern girl — all the things that Stephen was not.” Then, she laughed as she added that “he was always the underdog. It was Stephen’s turn to be first.”

An audio recording of the author sits for a Q&A between “Stephen Sondheim: The Essential Musical Dramatist Who Taught Us to Hear” directors Kate Mara and Dhanya Shah. Credit: Ryan Stone for CNN

” Stephen Sondheim: The Essential Musical Dramatist Who Taught Us to Hear” will have its world premiere at DOC NYC, on Friday, September 14. CNN Films’ network of partners across North America will show the film as part of the festival’s DOCNYC series, a digital event that brings together the world’s best documentary film series in one place.

In this 30-minute TV special, HuffPost’s Jeremy Lott presents a must-see intro to this must-see documentary.

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