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“My phone rang. It was Danny Melnick from David Suskind’s office with another idea.”
Thus runs the delightfully smug opening line of 1970’s Original Cast Album: “Company,” in a text crawl for maximum gravitas. You’re not supposed to know anyone referenced here; in fact, none of these people actually have anything to do with the making of the original cast album of Company, which the documentary sets out to capture. But that opening sentence is enough to imply that if you were anybody worth your salt, you would know, which is just the kind of secret handshaking you’d expect from a wildly obscure cult classic.
For decades, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary has been nearly unknown except to true theater zealots, surfacing only as rare YouTube clips and the occasional esoteric reference. The most famous of these is the 2019 Documentary Now episode “Original Cast Album: Co-op!”, which suddenly popularized the documentary no one had seen and exploded calls for its wider distribution.
It’s now finally been released in digital form for the first time ever, through Criterion — and it’s marvelous.
As the title suggests, Pennebaker’s film is an hour-long documentary about the process of recording the cast album for another cult classic: Company, Stephen Sondheim’s now-beloved 1970 musical about a commitment-phobic 30-something having an existential crisis as all their friends get married. Company is simultaneously one of the most hit-or-miss Sondheim shows and one of the most popular Sondheim shows, which might just make it the most quintessentially Sondheim of all Sondheim shows. Though it took a few decades to garner the broad appeal of his later shows like Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods, Company’s score is well known today, probably thanks to the way songs like “Being Alive” and “Ladies Who Lunch” have gained anthem status over time.
2019 in particular was a gala year for Sondheim songs going mainstream, with “Being Alive,” Company’s climactic non-conclusion about love, getting a showcase performance from Adam Driver in the Oscar-nominated Marriage Story as a symbol for all kinds of existential relationship anxieties.
2020 was set to witness a gala 50th-anniversary Broadway revival of Company, starring Katrina Lenk as a gender-bent take on the main character, before the Covid-19-induced closing of this theatrical season left it to an uncertain fate. The Criterion release of the documentary at this moment is a welcome palliative — though the Broadway company of Company also just reunited to perform the song’s opening number, “Company”:
Love is Company. The cast of Company Broadway reunite for a very special virtual performance of ‘Company’. “..and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” pic.twitter.com/dS3lPp1wOz— COMPANY (@CompanyBway) June 12, 2020
Pennebaker, known for chronicling countercultures and musicians and plenty of countercultural musicians, originally filmed Original Cast Album: “Company” as a pilot for a TV show about musical cast recordings. The show never happened. Thus the documentary’s existence itself is a minor miracle, an accident of timing that led to a glimpse of greatness. Pennebaker’s esoteric opening line sets us up for a bit of egocentrism — and the studio where Company was recorded was swimming in it.
At the time, Sondheim and Company’s director Hal Prince, then 40 and 42, respectively, were both already big tall terrible giants of musical theater. Sondheim was a prodigy who grew up under the mentorship of his father figure, legendary musical lyricist Oscar Hammerstein; he learned his craft so well that his musical theater debut was writing the lyrics to West Side Story when he was just 27. Prince, by contrast, spent decades grinding his way up the directorial ladder before making a name for himself staging the innovative original production of Cabaret in 1966. Their formidable partnership, which began with Company, would span most of the next decade and help secure their mutual artistic legacies.
Company’s cast included theater icons like Donna McKechnie, Dean Jones (who briefly originated the role of Company’s main character, Bobby, before leaving the production early on), and Our Lady of the Theatre Elaine Stritch. Company’s musical director, Harold Hastings, was a celebrated composer in his own right, and the recording’s producer, Thomas Shepard, had also worked on his share of musical cast recordings. After somehow, miraculously, captaining Company’s cast recording to a Grammy win for Best Musical Show Album, Shepard would go on to work with Sondheim many more times.
First, though, they all had to figure out together how to record and preserve the ephemeral magic of live musical theater.
On Broadway, the cast recording process was traditionally done in a single breezy day, where the actors simply repeated their onstage performances with some tweaks, cuts, and modifications for a recording. But most musicals aren’t Sondheim musicals, which are notoriously complex even when they’re mainly light in tone, like Company. And most musicals don’t feature lots of session musicians in a full live orchestra, trying to wrangle a Sondheim score, let alone Sondheim himself attempting to wring just a little more perfection from his exhausted crew.
What Pennebaker captures is all of the tension, humor, and frequent wry exasperation of a legendary creative team as they spend a long, grueling day wrestling with one of Broadway’s most famous and challenging musicals. Eight hours stretch to 14, then 15, then beyond, as everyone onscreen gets pushed to their creative and emotional limits.
You might think watching this marathon recording session would be emotionally exhausting, or at the least mildly depressing. But despite the coldness of this sort of workhorse approach to the text, Pennebaker’s footage oozes something approaching gleeful smarm, and it’s the best. America’s foremost musical theater composer slouches around giving incomprehensible directions and yowling at everyone like a sulky panther, while Shepard tries to gently coax everyone into even liking their performances. All the actresses smile nervously, except for Madame Stritch, who is palpably too old for any of this bullshit. Shepard drops perfectly timed one-liners, complete with dramatic pauses for extra comedic effect, and Prince and Sondheim snark at each other with the air of self-satisfied literati. Friends, this is drama.
In an early musical set, while the mega-voiced Pamela Myers sings “Another Hundred People,” Pennebaker focuses on the orchestra, revealing the complex arrangements and multitude of clashing independent musical motifs running through each instrument section. Then, after a break in which Shepard announces with aplomb that they might be recording until 4 am, Pennebaker cuts back to the orchestra, now full-blown, with Myers belting her heart out, the cacophony suddenly an organic, harmonious whole.
The documentary culminates in Dame Stritch belting out “Ladies Who Lunch,” one of the greatest diva numbers in musical theater history, finally exasperated into an iconic performance, perhaps just to spite her tormentors. It all reminds us that the best theater somehow, however improbably, arises from just this sort of delicious, cantankerous friction — and aren’t we glad it does? Everybody rise.
Update: This article has been updated for clarity.