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.
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.
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.
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.
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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