Classic documentary on the making of a classic musical show album 4.5 Stars

There has never been a documentary about artists at work slaving for perfection quite as memorable as D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company.

Original Cast Album: Company (1970)
Released: 28 Oct 1970
Rated: N/A
Runtime: 50 min
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Genre: Documentary
Cast: Barbara Barrie, Charles Braswell, Susan Browning
Writer(s): N/A
Plot: Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company" opened on Broadway in the Spring of 1970, and tradition dictates that the cast recording is done on the first Sunday after opening night. D.A. Pennebaker, the now-legendary documentarian, filmed t
IMDB rating: 8.1
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 53 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 08/17/2021
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 5/5

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company was a watershed production in the American musical theater. A 1970 concept show without a linear narrative but instead offering a series of vignettes about the perilousness but ultimate necessity of interpersonal relationships, its stories are enhanced by songs which either comment on or enhance fully the mood of the preceding tales. Documentarian D. A. Pennebaker’s 1970 filming of the grueling fourteen-hour recording session of the show’s original cast album has entered into legend in what was intended to be the first of a series of documentaries covering the ins and outs of detailing the work that goes into preserving for posterity the original cast of notable Broadway shows. As it turned out, this was the only movie that was made, but it was probably for the best: the drama that unfolds over the course of this movie’s all-too-brief 53-minute running time could never have been topped (subsequent documentaries by others in recent years detailing the recording of the Guys and Dolls revival or the original cast of The Producers can’t hold a candle to this.)

Stephen Sondheim’s music for Company is astonishing: in an age when critics were carping that excepting Hair and Your Own Thing, Broadway’s sound was too square, Sondheim’s music for this show was complex for sure but also as modern as rock but completely fitting as show music for this most urban of musicals. While the documentary can’t squeeze in every song in the score, we’re given a generous helping of the musical’s wildly variable musical palette. With composer Sondheim and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick present, the recording was supervised by Columbia’s tough, demanding Thomas Z. Shepard, and particularly the former and latter stay very busy throughout trying to keep the recording dynamically interesting and yet true to what was being played at the Alvin Theater. Sondheim gives notes to Pamela Meyers on the accurate pronunciation of “bubbi” in the remarkable harmonic trio “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and later corrects an incorrect note she’s been singing for months of previews and the first week of performances of her haunting, unforgettable “Another Hundred People.” That number also spotlights one of the documentary’s most inspired moments when we leave Meyers’ melodic line and begin rooting around the orchestra to hear what other instruments are playing as accompaniment, the first time likely for many viewers where one can truly understand what an orchestrator does. Beth Howland gets Sondheim’s attention, too, when he desires her to sing more of the melody in the impossibly tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today,” one of the most frenzied songs in musical theater history.

But the real drama in the documentary is reserved for the production’s two stars: Dean Jones and Elaine Stritch. As the show’s leading man, Jones playing confirmed bachelor Bobby, while a fine but untrained singer, must find some way to reach deep inside to pull out both notes and emotions for his climactic solo “Being Alive” after a long day of singing all of the show’s other music. What we inevitably get is thrilling: his eyes closed tightly to feel every note he’s singing and with the microphone practically down his throat, we get a “Being Alive” for the ages: for producer-director Hal Prince who makes a brief appearance in the movie, the best Bobby of all-time. But his few takes to get it right are nothing compared to the movie’s highlight: the harrowing attempts of the legendary Elaine Stritch to capture on tape what had already become a signature piece for her, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Attempting take after take in the early morning hours to capture the right mix of triumph and disdain in her rendition, her exhausted voice tries and fails repeatedly to get to the notes in her acerbic song as everyone’s heads hang in anguish. Fortunately for her (and us), a solution was found that turned tragedy into triumph.

A few other observations: Pennebaker’s ability to dart his three cameras around the recording stage without distracting the actors is amazing. Most are so concentrated on what they‘re doing that the cameras are oblivious to them (though you’ll notice Elaine Stritch seems to find the camera to wink at it as often as she can, and she seems throughout to be exaggerating her enthusiasm to bring the session to life on film). There’s quite a lot of smoking going on: even on the recording stage where one would think it wouldn’t be an advantage for the non-smokers in the crowd. It was indeed a different time. Little did these performers know that at the end of the season, five of them would be nominated for Tonys for their work: Susan Browning (who gets spotlighted in “Crazy” and “Barcelona” here) and Elaine Stritch as Best Actress, Pamela Meyers and Barbara Barrie for Featured Actress, and Charles Kimbrough as Featured Actor, that their show would gather a total of six Tonys out of its fourteen nominations, and that the album they spent such blood, sweat, and tears recording would ultimately win the Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Recording.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

Taken basically from a 16mm master and framed at 1.33:1, this 1080p transfer (AVC codec) looks as good as it can. It has been cleaned up from previous releases on tape, laserdisc, and DVD, but sharpness, color, and contrast do look their age, and no one will mistake it for the latest 4K epic. The film has been divided into 10 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The LPCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is solid and theatrical in its presentation. The music and lyrics as well as the talking in between as notes are given, recording techniques discussed, or problems are stated and hopefully solved are all discernible without the least bit of intrusion from age-related hiss, crackle, hum, or flutter anomalies.

Special Features: 4.5/5

Audio Commentaries: there are two present. Stephen Sondheim makes comments sometimes in general about his career and sometimes about what’s transpiring on the screen, but there are some silent patches. From the original DVD issue, producer-director Hal Prince, actress Elaine Stritch, and documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker all comment interestingly on what they’re seeing transpire on the screen.

Side by Side (29:27, SD) composer Stephen Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and former New York Times drama critic (and Sondheim fan) Frank Rich hold a Zoom chat in 2020 and discuss the coming together of composer and orchestrator into a legendary team that made musical theater history together.

Tunick Interview (18:39, HD): a 2021 interview with the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony winning Jonathan Tunick discussing his methods of orchestrating shows conducted by Ted Chapin (who as a very young man can be glimpsed in the documentary), head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op’ (24:37, HD): an episode of the series Documentary Now! which offers a satirical take on Pennebaker’s original film with original music and lyrics and a cast headed by Richard Kind, Rénee Elise Goldsberry, and John Mulaney.

Panel Discussion/Documentary Now! (33:10, SD): before and behind the camera participants in the above satire share their feelings about the original documentary and their comic take on it. Those participating include director Alexander Buono; writer-actor John Mulaney; actors Rénee Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Alex Brightman, and Paula Pell; and composer Eli Bolin.

Additional Commentary (11:46): additional audio outtakes from the commentary featuring Pennebaker, Prince, and Stritch.

Enclosed Pamphlet: contains cast and crew lists, information on the audio and video transfer, and author Mark Harris’ essay on the importance of the show and this documentary.

Overall: 4.5/5

There has never been a documentary about artists at work slaving for perfection quite as memorable as D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company. It ranks right alongside the show itself as one of the most memorable of show business mementos, and it comes with the highest of recommendation especially for fans of musical theater.

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Matt Hough

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I. CAN'T. WAIT. I remember the first time this was on broadcast television. Even as a child, I was mesmerized. I remain a die-hard Sondheim acolyte, having seen all of the original productions of his work, starting with the National tour and West End original productions of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (with Jean Simmons and Hermione Gingold (or Margaret Hamilton, in the National tour) up to and include the National Theatre production of FOLLIES (Three times... including the closing night). I can't fully explain the impact of his music and lyrics on me but I am always moved, delighted, surprised, and engaged. I direct in the theatre for a living, as well as teach, and I have enjoyed directing musicals in the Sondheim canon as well, although I've not done COMPANY... yet. THANKS CRITERION!
 

roxy1927

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There have to be hours of tape that were excluded from this documentary. Were they destroyed? Why couldn't a fair amount have been included as bonus extras?
 

noel aguirre

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Sorry but I have this on DVD and it’s a sad state of affairs and painful to see an obviously tanked Elaine Stritch struggling to get through these recording sessions. Thankfully she later found sobriety and gave us some brilliant concerts and performances, 2 of which I saw in A Little Night Music when she replaced Angela Lansbury and the other being At Liberty her one woman show. A true Bway legend.

In addition there’s no mention of Larry Kert who took over the role immediately after Dean Jones was let go and was nominated for the Tony but cast after this doc and recording were made. I would love to have heard his rendition of the material but it’s not available not that I know of?
 
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roxy1927

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I believe there was a release(I'm hoping somebody else can confirm this for me) of the cast album in London for the run there with Kert's vocals added. Strangely it has never turned up on any cd reissue. Rights problems? Or am I imagining this?
I saw Kert do the role that fall at the Alvin with the rest of the original cast and he was vocally wonderful. But I am glad I got to see Jones years later in the same theater in Into the Light. He was a childhood hero of mine from his Disney films.
 

haineshisway

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I believe there was a release(I'm hoping somebody else can confirm this for me) of the cast album in London for the run there with Kert's vocals added. Strangely it has never turned up on any cd reissue. Rights problems? Or am I imagining this?
I saw Kert do the role that fall at the Alvin with the rest of the original cast and he was vocally wonderful. But I am glad I got to see Jones years later in the same theater in Into the Light. He was a childhood hero of mine from his Disney films.
Wow. Yes, there was a CD release of the London cast album on Sony London but it's just the US cast album with Kert's vocals added (you can still hear the ghost of Dean Jones's vocals, BTW).
 

roxy1927

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Well I missed that cd. I see it is available on amazonuk used pretty cheap.
 

Matt Hough

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Matt:

Thank you for the insightful review. I look forward to picking this up at the next B&N 50% Off Criterion or Criterion Flash Sale.

Sean
Thank you, Sean. I do have to admit to a special fondness for the show. I was lucky enough to be cast as Harry (the karate-suffering husband) in a local production of the show some years ago, and while the score was very difficult (spent the first two rehearsals just learning the intricacies of the opening number), it was such a blast to perform. How I ever had the stamina to sing "Sorry/Grateful" after my "show wife" tossed me around the stage a couple of times before the number, I'll never know!
 

Matt Hough

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Sorry but I have this on DVD and it’s a sad state of affairs and painful to see an obviously tanked Elaine Stritch struggling to get through these recording sessions. Thankfully she later found sobriety and gave us some brilliant concerts and performances, 2 of which I saw in A Little Night Music when she replaced Angela Lansbury and the other being At Liberty her one woman show. A true Bway legend.

In addition there’s no mention of Larry Kert who took over the role immediately after Dean Jones was let go and was nominated for the Tony but cast after this doc and recording were made. I would love to have heard his rendition of the material but it’s not available not that I know of?
The saga of Larry Kert serving as Dean Jones' standby and replacing him a month after the show opened is reiterated in several of the bonus features. Naturally none of that would be in the documentary itself since Kert wasn't on the cast recording (if he was at the recording session, I never saw him) and Jones hadn't left the production yet.

Stritch says in the commentary she had a few glasses of champagne; Sondheim and others say she was belting back brandy. I tend to believe them.
 

roxy1927

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Is that why she lets out the most painful flat note in recording history in the opening number?
 

Jake Lipson

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Thank you @Matt Hough for the review. The original DVD of this was out of print before I knew enough to get one, so I would have bought a barebones version of it. The extras are just wonderful gravy. It is my most anticipated Criterion release in quite some time and the rare one I won't wait for a 50% off sale to pick up.
 

Will Krupp

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Stritch says in the commentary she had a few glasses of champagne; Sondheim and others say she was belting back brandy. I tend to believe them.

Pardon my cynicism, but I have always gravitated towards the (completley unfounded) theory that Stritch saw an opportunity to get a "good cut" out of the documentary by giving the story some dramatic impetus (will she or won't she?) and played it for all it's worth, including the triumph of returning (alone it's important to note) to kill it at the end. She's well aware that the finale of the documentary will be about Stritch and no one else.

I love Elaine Stritch and find her completely compelling to watch but, drinking or not, she was a terribly insecure talent and never very generous to her fellow performers.
 

roxy1927

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I believe once I saw her interviewed about her role in the original Broadway production of Bus Stop and she talked about how brilliant Kim Stanley was but you're right she wasn't very generous about others except for Noel.
 
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