Yesterday, I posted the video of a tremendous 1993 reunion concert with the original cast of the landmark Broadway musical, Company. This was 23 years after the original show opened in 1970. I thought I'd post this documentary below as an ideal companion piece. It's a 1970 TV documentary about the making of the original cast album of Company. All those actors you saw in the reunion concert, here they are doing to the same songs a quarter of a century earlier.
By the way, the documentary is tremendous. Over the years since this was done, there have been quite a few similarly-themed "making of cast album" documentaries, generally for PBS -- as this was. And they don't compare. They don't compare to such a great extent that they're in a different category entirely. I don't even say that particularly as a subjective opinion. But a statement of intent. The subsequent "documentaries" have really just been promotional tools for selling the cast CD. Most everything is whitewashed nicely and lovingly. Maybe there's a moment where some hiccups, darn it, but then by jingo they they jump back in and all is well.
Original Cast Album: Company is entirely different. It's actually a documentary about making the cast album of the show. A real, accompllished documentarian made the film, D.A. Pennebaker. Probably his most famous documentaries are Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back (which is now part of the National Film Registry) and The War Room.-- about Bill Clinton's run for the presidency -- which got an Oscar nomination. And he's still making documentaries...after 62 years (he was co-director of last year's Unlocking the Cage), a total of 58 films in all.
His documentary about the making of the Company cast album show what actually went on, warts and all. The arguments, frustrations, fun, great performances, re-takes, debates, rehearsing and exhaustion. And hovering through it all is composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim's meticulous attention to detail -- even more so than famous cast-album record producer Thomas Z. Shepard -- at one point telling an actress, as only one example of many, that she's singing an A, when it's supposed to be F-sharp. What's fascinating is hearing a take that sounds perfectly good, but the experts are able to hear things they want fixed -- and then when you hear the final version, you can that, yes, it actually does sound so much better, and right.
The most famous sequence in the film is when they prepare to record Elaine Stritch's tour-de-force number, "The Ladies Who Lunch"...and she just can't get it right, sometimes to her satisfaction, sometimes to Sondheim's, sometimes others. The effort and lengths to get the critical number done is a gem on its own. And nothing you'd ever see on a puff piece. This is no puff piece. It's grueling, edgy, fascinating, human, artistic, and just really wonderful. If you only want to watch this one sequence -- and you really watch it all, not just because it's all so good, but it puts this sequence in proper perspective -- it starts at 37:30.
(Interesting side note: in 2002, Elaine Stritch did a well-regarded documentary, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, which captured her one-woman stage show. It was directed by...DA Pennebaker.)
Also especially touching is Dean Jones' recording of the emotional "Being Alive," as he sings about the reasons to not get married, as it slides into convincing himself of why to get married -- knowing that he's in the middle of his own real-life divorce and would soon leave the show to deal with it. (It begins at the 27:45 mark.)
The documentary was intended to be the first in a series of "making of..." cast album documentaries by Pennebaker. But for whatever reason, perhaps it didn't do well-enough during its airing on PBS, or it cost more than anyone was willing to pay, or who knows?, no others were made. Given how terrific this one is, that's a shame. But happily we have this one.
It easily stands on its own, and has for decades. But now with this video of the 1993 reunion concert, it's a treat to compare the same cast and same work.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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