Original Cast Album: Company (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Aug 23, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Original Cast Album: Company (Blu-ray Review)

Director

D.A. Pennebaker

Release Date(s)

1970 (August 17, 2021)

Studio(s)

Docurama/Group W Television (Criterion – Spine #1090)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: A

Original Cast Album: Company (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

A longtime tradition in recording original cast albums of Broadway musicals was to assemble the cast in the studio on the Sunday after opening night. Songs from the show would be recorded in a single day. Planned as the first in an unrealized series of documentaries on several of these sessions, Original Cast Album: Company provides a candid look at the process, with the cast and creators of Company.

Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the documentary is set almost entirely in the recording studio as record producer Thomas Z. Shepard, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, musical director Harold Hastings, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick work with the cast to achieve the best possible renditions of the numbers. With numerous microphones strategically placed among the orchestra and singers in the same studio, the entire cast performs the opening title song, followed by Beth Howland’s rapid-fire version of Getting Married Today. Donna McKechnie, Susan Browning, and Pamela Myers deliver the bouncy You Can Drive a Person Crazy. We see Dean Jones’ wrenching solo of Being Alive and the satirical The Little Things You Do Together performed by Elaine Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Charles Kimbrough, and company.

As the session extends into the wee small hours of the morning, only one more song has yet to be recorded—Elaine Stritch’s show stopper The Ladies Who Lunch. Tensions escalate as take after take falls flat. Stritch is tired and her voice shows it. She becomes short of patience, frustrated, angry at herself, and disappointed that she can’t deliver. This fascinating, dramatic sequence shows how hard it is to record everything in a single day and how far artists are pushed. Eventually, record producer Shepard decides to call a halt and have Stritch return in a couple of days when she’s fresh to get the definitive version on tape.

Pennebaker captures the excitement of what, under another director, might seem routine. With no staged shots, he captures great moments, including Sondheim obsessing over a single note in one of his songs, tight close-ups of the singers as they record, tired faces, the conductor’s body language encouraging the singers’ enthusiasm, a tap dancer’s feet in Side By Side, and close-ups of various musicians and their instruments. Tracking shots, zooms, and interesting cutting help to keep the single location visually interesting.

Original Cast Album: Company has been out of print for many years, so it’s exciting to have it released by the Criterion Collection. Company was the first collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince, a relationship that would produce several major musicals through the 1970s, including A Little Night Music, Follies, and Sweeney Todd. Company was revived on Broadway in 1995 and 2006. Patti LuPone is set to resume preview performances in December 2021 ahead of a January 2022 opening night.

Featuring 1080p resolution, the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. According to information in the enclosed booklet, “the new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the original 16 mm A/B Ektachrome reversal, except for the opening credits, which were restored from a 35 mm blowup.” The print far surpasses a previous DVD version, which looked grainy and washed out. The image is bolder and clearer in the Criterion release. There are brief moments when focus is readjusted after the camera has zoomed in on a subject. Everything is shot hand-held, so the look is far from that of a slick Hollywood production. Recalling basketball games he’d attended, director Pennebaker noted how brightly they were lit from above, so overhead lights were installed in the recording studio, a converted church hall. The filmmaker favors tight close-ups and uses them often. His moving camera and intelligent editing prevent the film from being visually dull. Not every song on the cast album is represented in the documentary.

The soundtrack is English Mono LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Incidental comments made by Sondheim, record producer Thomas Shepard, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick are interspersed with performance takes. Though several microphones are placed among the singers and orchestra, the overall sound is merely adequate. Upon listening to the cast album after watching the film, it’s clear that the dynamic range is far greater on the record. In the film, the songs occasionally have a slight echo. Mostly, however, the renditions are exciting to watch and listen to. As the session enters the early morning hours, the cast and crew sound tired, This is especially true of Elaine Stritch, who dominates a good section of the film. Her frustration is evident and she becomes testy as take after take proves unsatisfactory.

Bonus material on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release include two audio commentaries; a conversation among Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and critic Frank Rich; an interview with Tunick about the art of orchestrating; never-before-heard audio excerpts from interviews with Stritch and Prince; a 2019 episode of the TV parody series Documentary Now! and reunion conversation among cast members; and a booklet containing a critical essay.

Audio Commentary #1 – This 2001 commentary features filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, actor Elaine Stritch, and producer/director Hal Prince discussing the Company LP recording session. Pennebaker notes that it was traditional for a cast recording to be made the first Sunday after the musical opened. Stritch was in Massachusetts, starring in Mame, when she received a call telling her that Sondheim had written a great part expressly for her. During the recording session, notes Stritch, “There was no feeling of any pictures being taken.” Hal Prince felt that there was a musical somewhere in the 11 one-act plays George Furth had written. Three were used for Company and additional characters were added. The collaboration between Sondheim and Prince lasted ten years. Prince remarks that “the film is an amazing theatrical documentary” and singles out the scene in which Stritch has trouble with The Ladies Who Lunch as building suspense. Prince rehearsed the cast, composed of serious actors, for five weeks. For the recording session, Pennebaker was concerned that his cameras would be too noisy and he’d be thrown out. The use of hand-held cameras only enabled them to move among the singers and crew and capture key moments. Pennebaker comments that the cameras were primitive by today’s standards.

Audio Commentary #2 – Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim discusses the writing of the songs in Company and his part at the recording session. He speaks about how he wanted the definitive renditions of the songs performed while at the same time giving the artists their space. He was used to lengthy rehearsals and the shaping of a musical over many weeks, so the one-day recording session didn’t bother him. He would confer with musical director and record producer Thomas Z. Shepard and work closely with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick to assure first-rate performances.

Side By Side: Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Tunick on Company (29:27) – Frank Rich interviews the two men. Tunick first learned of Sondheim when he heard the score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, admired the score and the lyrics, and wanted to work with him. Sondheim notes that Tunick has a sense of drama in his orchestrations and is attentive to lyrics, lighting, and other elements of the production. Sondheim composes on the piano. He knows nothing about orchestrating. The two men discuss the action of Company and the legendary recording of its cast album. Hal Prince was in favor of the documentary, figuring it would be good publicity for the show. He recalls that “the photographers filmed everything.” Prince himself appears only briefly in the documentary. The men discuss the technical side of recording a cast album. It was common to double the size of the string section, and this was done for the Company session. Because LPs had limited space, cuts had to be made in some of the songs. Sondheim believes Dean Jones’ best version of Being Alive is in the Pennebaker film. Sondheim wrote a song called Crinoline which eventually became The Ladies Who Lunch. Elaine Stritch loved bantering back and forth with others. She had been scheduled to record her number early in the day but traded spots with Dean Jones, who felt he wouldn’t be in decent voice late at night. Stritch was “mercurial; the slightest thing would set her off.” Sondheim loved the final version of the film.

Jonathan Tunick on the Art of Orchestrating (18:39) – In this conversation, recorded in April, 2021, the Tony/Grammy/Emmy/Academy Award-winning orchestrator and composer Jonathan Tunick talks to Ted Chapin, author of Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies”, about the art of orchestration. Broadway musicals that Tunick worked on include Promises, Promises, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods.

Documentary Now! – Original Cast Album: Co-Op (24:37) – A spoof of the D.A. Pennebaker film, Helen Mirren (as herself) introduces the episode, welcoming viewers to “Season 52 of Documentary Now!” The writers include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers. The program begins with the cast at the studio being informed that the show has closed but they must forge ahead anyway to record the score (specially composed for this spoof). Among the highlights are Christmas Tips by Richard Kind and I Gotta Go, a parody of Elaine Stritch’s breakdown when trying to provide a usable version of The Ladies Who Lunch. John Mulaney, in black wig and 70s-style sideburns, is the Sondheim-like composer, alternately brooding and enthusiastic. Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) is among the cast members.

Documentary Now! Conversation (33:10) – The cast and crew of the Original Cast Album: Co-Op reunite on Zoom to discuss the D.A. Pennebaker documentary that inspired the spoof. John Mulaney says, “the late night hours when everyone is smoking and miserable” reminds him of working on SNL. Seth Meyers suggested that the original idea be expanded into a full episode. Paula Pell plays the singer having an on-camera nervous breakdown, amusingly channeling Elaine Stritch. Cast members Alex Brightman, Richard Kind, and Renee Elise Goldsberry offer their takes on being part of the short film. Cast albums are made the same way today as shown in the Pennebaker film, though the technology is more advanced. Elaine Stritch’s journey is theatrical. “She’s playing out her own production,” creating her own drama. Of the performers in the original documentary, Stritch is the only one to appear conscious of the camera. At a screening of Original Cast Album: Co-Op, Thomas Shepard, the record producer for the Company album, was in the audience and felt bad about how he treated the talent, believing he should have been more supportive. Mulaney speaks about how he learned to write lyrics to existing melodies in a college course.

D.A. Pennebaker, Eliane Stritch, and Hal Prince (11:46) – In this interview from 2000, the titular filmmaker, actor, and director discuss the documentary. Stritch was not in a good place in her career when she got the call from Hal Prince offering her the role of Joanne. During the recording session, she was concerned about getting everything right. Nothing in the film was staged. Stritch wasn’t merely self-pitying. Asked by an audience member after a screening of the documentary how she felt about her appearance in the film, Stritch answered, “I looked like Margaret Rutherford doing the life of Judy Garland.”

Booklet – The enclosed accordion-style booklet contains a critical essay by Mark Harris, cast and film credits, small color photos of cast members, and information about the film’s 4K digital transfer.

Original Cast Album: Company deglamorizes and demystifies the creative process. Fighting the clock, the cast move quickly while striving for the best possible rendition of each song. Singers, musicians, and recording engineers collaborate toward perfection through glamorless, repetitive work.

- Dennis Seuling

 

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