Original Cast Album: Company
September 11, 2020
t’s customary that on the Sunday following the premiere of a Broadway musical, its ensemble heads to a recording studio to put the soundtrack on vinyl for posterity regardless of the success of the work in question. In 1970, lauded documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, 1967; Monterey Pop, 1968) was approached to make a TV series highlighting this tradition. Each episode would document (albeit in an abbreviated
form) what a given cast would go through to ensure a customer could enjoy one of their favorite musicals at home, at a restaurant, in the car, anywhere, forever and ever. Famously, though, Pennebaker never got to go past the pilot — the pilot being a 53-minute-long chronicling of the making of the soundtrack album for Company (1970), whose book was written by George Furth and whose music and lyrics were done by Stephen Sondheim.
The short feature has, for decades, been as celebrated as it has been obscured. It’s widely considered a crucial documentation of a rare and riveting intersection — when artists try to merge three forms (theater, music, and movies). Efforts were even brilliantly parodied on the brilliant parody show Documentary Now! (2015-present), a series that almost exclusively burlesques documentaries pretty unanimously deemed essential to the form. It’s a compliment — a confirmation of one’s importance — to get sent up by its creators. Yet, until a couple of months ago, when it became available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Pennebaker’s pilot was nearly impossible to watch, that is watch conveniently. Some DVD copies might potentially cost a desperate viewer a few hundred dollars.
One does not need to be familiar with Company to be roused by its soundtrack's making. In fact I think no acquaintance at all adds to its thrill — you don’t know what exactly its cast is about to go through, going in. One hears Sondheim’s name and might immediately think of the complexity of his musicianship and lyricism. Songs are typically wordy and are contingent on an emotional and frequently comically inclined delivery. So a performer meaningfully bringing them to life not only functions as an astonishing feat of memorization but also of getting one's mouth to move agiley. The recording of the soundtrack album for any Sondheim musical, not just Company, becomes doubly nerve-racking. It’s hard enough to pin down a Sondheim song. While on stage a brief gaffe might go unnoticed or forgiven, there can be no fucking up when you’re trying to capture the premier version of it to be heard for generations.
This pressure is exhilarating. The documentary sometimes can feel like a thriller. Most of the time, we live up to the sitting-at-the-edge-of-one’s-seat platitude, waiting for a performer to mangle a word or a phrase or a specific note or a run of notes. Pennebaker’s no-frills, shaky, fly-on-the-wall approach complements the jumpiness. It’s no doubt already daunting enough for one of these actor-singers to try to not fumble when the record button is on and blinking in the sound room. So how much worse can it be when cameras are also avidly watching and moving and zooming?
The marathon recording session is exciting for the viewer, if nightmarish for every member of Company’s cast. (Nearly everyone was cooped up, trying to get the play perfectly translated, for almost 18 hours straight.) The film is most sensational when an unavoidable mistake arises and then endures. We have Pamela Myers struggling to pronounce a certain word and continuing to struggle take after take after take. We also have Elaine Stritch determined to get the solo "Ladies Who Lunch" recorded within the night but, whether she'd like to admit it or not, simply sounds way too tired for her voice to be put on vinyl for an eternity. Listen to how she sounds! It’ll have to wait until morning. No way! Stritch insists. Though insistence, however persuasive, cannot promise a desired result.
he Stritch segment is inarguably the centerpiece of the documentary. We can’t take our eyes off her during earlier parts of the movie, even when she’s doing backup-singing and the fuck-ups will certainly not be hers. When her “Ladies Who Lunch” moment arrives, it’s like a start button-push on a ticking time bomb’s timer. We nervously await the outcome as the numbers unfeelingly go downward. With some
intervention, will it end in disaster, or relief? Undoubtedly did Pennebaker recognize Stritch’s magnetism ahead of time, too. When it’s her turn to do this individual piece, most people have cleared out. The emphasis can just be on her, the blare of her frantic peers quieted.
Sondheim and others remaining in the studio recommend Stritch save “Ladies Who Lunch” for another day. Even if she doesn’t feel tired, she’s been singing for hours and hours. Whether or not her energy level is at an apex, one cannot extinguish hoarseness without at least some throat-coat tea and a few hours of rest. But Stritch thinks it a waste to not attempt to do a take or two. It’d be a perfect way to end a day’s hard work if executed the way she thinks it could be. Sondheim relents, but with the caveat of potential rejection.
Stritch’s first take blisters. It stretches four and a half minutes, with no cuts — no editing to pretty the process. Stritch, clearly exhausted with her white-blonde hair in turmoil from a Sunday’s worth of stress-touching and her eyes pleading for sleep, gives it all her might — tries as hard as she can to recreate her stage performance in front of the studio microphone. It’s so intoxicating watching her trying to will her way to the finished result of her dreams that it doesn’t matter to us much how she sounds.
Precisely the problem. We don’t question whether Stritch’s dog-tired belting is hypnotic cinema. But this whole scenario so much as existing hinges on whether she sounds "good." Even if we listen rather than look at these four and a half minutes and we still think it sounds terrific, what we’re hearing is the sound of a performer pushed to her limits — easier to appreciate when we know the cinematic context. When an audience member is buying the soundtrack for Company, what they’re buying is how Stritch sounded when they saw her that one night, not how she warbled, how she felt, after more than 12 hours of singing.
At the end of Stritch’s enthralling first take, producer Thomas Z. Shepard is unenthusiastic. To him, this moment, so incredible for us to bear witness to, was a textbook lousy take. We want to be appalled, but we also know that how we took in what we just saw is not one and the same with the objective of recording a soundtrack album in the first place. Stritch, well aware that this would have been a startling performance on stage, will too soon recognize the discrepancy. “Oh, shut up!” she screams at herself when Shepard plays the recording back.
Finally, after a few brutally received takes, she relents and throws in the towel for the night. In the film’s coda, we watch Stritch a different day, revived and dolled-up and discernibly in a better headspace, giving the “flawless” performance we can now listen to on the official soundtrack. It’s less cinematically interesting. But it is, of course, the perfect suitor to a coveted sound. This fascinating dichotomy is one we wish Pennebaker, had this pilot been able to expand, could recapture in this format, in other nuanced ways. But this take will do. A