Broadway has been shut down for months, resulting in ardent dramatists to fill the void by reciting monologues at home and leaving musical aficionados to listen to cast albums on an endless loop. Nothing can quite replace the feeling of seeing actors and audience members in the flesh, but theater kids everywhere can rejoice — D.A. Pennebaker’s must-watch documentary, Original Cast Album: Company (1970), brings some of the magic and madness of live theater into your home.
Chronicling the recording of the cast album for the Broadway show Company, this legendary documentary is a vital portrait of the dramatic art form and the personal drama that unfolds offstage. In 1970, Company — with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and direction by Hal Prince — was a strange new “concept musical” that lacked a traditional plot. Instead, the show was comprised of a series of vignettes telling the tale of Bobby, a chronic bachelor, and all his married friends as they gather to celebrate his 30th birthday. Pennebaker’s documentary, finally released on the Criterion Channel, and featuring commentary from some of the cast and crew, offers intimate insight into this innovative new show and the careful craft and pure manic energy that went into putting it on.
When Company opened on Broadway, it changed musicals forever — shaking up the form, it paved new ground for the kinds of dark emotions and complex relationship struggles that could be portrayed onstage. Shortly after it opened to triumphant reviews, the production team assembled the cast and orchestra to record the original cast album in New York. This marathon studio session, which ran all day and nearly all night, is immortalized by Pennebaker and his documentary crew. Both seemingly impossible to please, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and record producer Tom Shepard pepper the performances with incessant criticism and commentary as the night wears on. The camera captures it all: the tortured creative process and the triumphant effort to create musical harmony amidst urban cacophony.
Even though Pennebaker notes the distinct challenge of filming in the recording studio — it was like “trying to light a basketball game,” he says — the camera crew’s presence never feels forced or unnatural. His approach was to be an invisible audience, careful not to intrude on the creative process. Elaine Stritch, who played the role of Joanne, calls him the “sneak of all time,” with the cast barely noticing that anyone was filming despite the crowded quarters.
The immersive footage cuts between scenes of actors singing to shots of producers rubbing their temples in frustration as the night drags on. In order to follow the performances as non-disruptively as possible, the camerawork is entirely handheld as it pushes in for closeups on solos and moves around the room during ensemble numbers. The blurriness and shakiness of many of these shots adds a covert human touch, as if Pennebaker is sneakily stealing scenes from Broadway’s hidden moments. Occasionally, the camera cues its movements to the music — for example, it pulls focus back and forth during the duet of “Barcelona” between Bobby and the flight attendant, April.
The artists are hyper-focused on their craft, and their steadfast commitments to creative choices become nearly absurd. Sondheim, an ever precise perfectionist with his rhymes, corrects Donna McKechnie’s pronunciation as she sings: in the lyrics “Bobby-baby-Bobby-bubbi,” “bubbi” has same vowel sound as “good,” and it is essential that she gets it right. Sondheim is obsessive and insistent in his correction, having her repeat it over and over until he’s satisfied — the song, fittingly, is entitled “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
Clad in a black turtleneck, lips pursed, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, Sondheim seems every bit the image of a tortured artist. Yet in one of the direct acknowledgments of the documentary crew, Sondheim opens up to the camera about wanting to be taken seriously as a composer. The industry sees him primarily as a lyricist, and even though he is a master wordsmith, the music is what he really cares about. Company is a major development in his career, and even Broadway legends have their fears about how their work will be received; everyone involved in the production handles their craft with intense seriousness, even as they have fun with some of the more comedic songs.
The documentary’s strength lies in this amplification of internal angst that reveals how closely the musical is intertwined with their personal lives. Hal Prince and George Furth tinkered incessantly while developing the show’s structure, writing roles with the actors in mind and tailoring the parts to their authentic experiences. The line between character and actor becomes further blurred as we see them perform each number without the grandeur of the stage, set, or costumes, instead being entirely stripped down to embody the raw emotion. Pam Myers, making her Broadway debut in the role of Marta, sings the solo “Another Hundred People” about the energy of the city, and perfectly captures her wide-eyed astonishment. Meanwhile, the show’s protagonist, Bobby, is deeply afraid of committing and opening up to others, and actor Dean Jones was dealing with a crumbling marriage at the time — the closeups during his emotional finale, “Being Alive,” show us a man at his most vulnerable, laying himself completely bare to the audience. Viewers of the documentary may not get the same visceral sensation of seeing an actor’s physical body at the theater, yet Pennebaker’s camera brings us closer to them than we could ever actually get in real life.
The most mesmerizing turn occurs once most of the recording is finished and everyone goes home, save for Elaine Stritch, who still has her big eleven o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” to perform. Stritch needs to be alone with only the creative team to do it, wanting to avoid judgment from the other performers as she struggles with the song; even this immensely talented actor, playing a role that was written specifically for her, is tormented by self-consciousness and self-criticism. The story suddenly becomes intensely suspenseful, leaving us on the edge of our seat: will she be able to sing it or not?
The scene is scorched with her raw frustration as she struggles to deliver the showstopping number with the appropriate power, screaming at herself for not achieving something deemed satisfactory. Tom Shepard offers sharp jabs from the booth — “Once more from the top. Sung, please,” he says wearily, after yet another failed take — and the exhaustion starts to take its toll on everyone. Stritch begins to unravel, dragging herself through hell for the sake of art. At the end of this long day, she is bare-faced with raw vocal cords, but she removes her hat, fluffs her hair into spiky peaks, and tries again and again to nail it, showing us that the act of artistic creation can be an immense joy, but also a turbulent torture.
Finally, Shepard decides to end the agony, calling it quits to start fresh for the next day. With a quick cut to that subsequent session, we see Stritch arrive energized, coiffed, and glamorous in full makeup and false eyelashes to deliver a triumphant performance. And just like that, the flashing Original Cast Album sign leaps onscreen as we hear voices say “Great. Sensational. Wrap it up,” adding a quick comedic button that belies none of the preceding pain as the show goes on.
Pennebaker’s work began with the intention to film a series of original cast recording sessions, none of which materialized after Company was filmed. Yet as the opening scroll of text informs us, “There was never a next one. This was it.” Theater is a liminal art form, and no two performances are ever quite the same, but Original Cast Album: Company continues to be required viewing for theater nerds everywhere. It was parodied to perfection by the television series Documentary Now! in their “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” episode, written by John Mulaney and Seth Meyers and directed by Alex Buono. Transposing the story to a Manhattan co-op building and creating original songs about co-op boards and elevator rides, the episode is both satire and loving homage to the strange art form of the Broadway musical and all the backstage drama and devotion that keeps it alive. Pennebaker’s documentary is lightning in a bottle, or perhaps a tornado in a recording studio — a whirlwind of egos and exhaustion that miraculously results in the output of an album.
Perhaps there is something inherently masochistic about musical theater, chasing perfection in ephemeral performances eight times a week. Original Cast Album: Company demystifies and deglamorizes the creative process, allowing us to see the blood, sweat, tears, and endless cigarettes that go into putting on a show. It’s much more than a behind-the-scenes look at Broadway — it tears Broadway open to get at its beating heart. It’s a story of real people striving toward the unreachable both on the stage and in the recording studio, dedicating themselves to often unglamorous and emotionally brutal work, staking their entire lives and livelihoods for the process of creation. Each performance may be a fleeting moment, but this filmic record and the transcendent power of theater endure — in the words of Company’s final lines, they will “always be there, as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive.”