Originally a pilot for a TV series on the making of the all-important original cast albums of Broadway shows, this fascinating film comes from that maestro of the music documentary DA. Pennebaker. He mastered (some say pioneered) the art of the hand-held, fly-on-the-wall technique. The TV series never got made but the filming of the cast album for Stephen Sondheim’s Company will become a favourite of the composer/lyricist’s cult-like fans. And Sondheim fans are a force to be reckoned with.
Sondheim liked to challenge listeners emotionally and intellectually. Company is a satire of modern relationships between men and women and was one of his first ‘concept musicals’. It was more a series of vignettes than a coherent story, and had no real showstopper hits for audiences to hum on the way home.
Pennebaker and his cameraman Richard Leacock, armed with shoulder-mounted equipment stalk the febrile recording studio crammed with the musicians, singers, technicians, Sondheim himself, and the theatre director Hal Prince way into the wee hours. They are all determined to create a permanent and definitive album that just has to be right. The pressure is on.
The camera’s constant presence soon becomes invisible to performers who fight fatigue to get the songs perfect. Concentration is required so as not to trip up on Sondheim’s tricky lyrics. The legend goes that Pennebaker had packed up his equipment and was slipping out the door when he was alerted to a contretemps between the record’s producer Thomas Z. Shepard and the comedienne and singer Elaine Stritch. Her early morning, exhausted performance of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ was just not up to snuff. He calls it ‘flaccid’ after she has put her heart and soul into it. But she recognises as much herself and her reactions to listening to the playback is priceless.
Pennebaker quickly unpacked and caught the unfolding drama. Stritch was not the star of the stage show but she’s the star here and sometimes seems to be milking her performance. In the end they recorded the orchestra and dubbed in Stritch a couple of days later when her voice was fresher. The song, an angry denunciation of the empty-headed rich women who fill their days with inconsequentialities (trips to the gym and trying on hats) became Stritch’s theme tune.
Original Cast Album: Company is an engrossing record of the event and also a glimpse of the creative process, the frayed nerves, fluffs and false starts and the tense struggle to get things spot on. Pennebaker captures it all in tight close up and quick pans and then superbly edits the thing together to create a time capsule that musical theatre fans will love.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 13 Sept 2021