Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Today we’ll be discussing a failed television documentary pilot that was recently revived by The Criterion Channel and has now landed on Blu-ray as part of their Criterion Collection. Original Cast Album: Company is an intimate look at the recording process that took place the day following the Broadway show’s premiere in 1970.
“Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive”
– lyrics from “Being Alive,” written by Stephen Sondheim
What is the threshold for a group of Broadway artists stuck in a recording studio for 14 hours trying to essentially achieve a goal while everyone involved comes at it with a completely different perspective? That’s the conundrum that filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker captures in his hour-long documentary Original Cast Album: Company. Originally intended to be the first of many television episodes that would offer a behind the scenes look at the creative process, Pennebaker’s unobtrusive examination chronicles the official cast recording the day after the opening of Company, a musical created by legendary Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) that captures the perspective of a near-middle-aged bachelor being pressured to settle down by his coupled circle of friends.
This writer never had the opportunity to experience this show and attempted to track it down for some perspective to no avail. There was a 2011 filmed version of Company with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) that’s unfortunately out of print and no longer streaming. That’s not to say that one would need deep familiarity with the show as the entire exercise illuminates the inner workings of show business class structure and how it mirrors the relationship between the haves and have-nots in day-to-day life. The top of the chain would be Columbia Records producer Thomas Z. Shepard, followed by creator Sondheim, theater director Hal Prince (Cabaret), composer Jonathan Tunick, and then the actors and musicians. It’s interesting to see how gender politics have obviously shifted since this took place (1970s), but the abundance of ego maniacal micromanaging hasn’t aged a day. When performer Elaine Stritch pours her heart and soul into her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” both Shepard and Sondheim demand so many takes, it would make David Fincher’s head spin.
What really puts everything in perspective is the Documentary Now! spoof that’s included in this Criterion release and the absolute highlight that outshines the feature itself. Original Cast Album: Co-Op is a spot-on parody written by John Mulaney and Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live. Mulaney channels Sondheim as Simon Sawyer and his confrontational approach to dealing with the performers is spot on.
There’s an instance where Renee Goldsberry from Hamilton, as her character Dee Dee, is attempting to get the rhythm down in one of the more offbeat hilarious numbers and is pulled aside in the middle of her performance by Sawyer. “You’ve been doing something that’s been annoying me for weeks. I’d like to talk about it right now.” He then proceeds to nitpick her pronunciation of a certain word and badgers her with ludicrous inquiries until she gets his point.
Richard Kind (Curb Your Enthusiasm) absolutely nails the deadpan delivery of the fictional show’s finale with “Going Up,” an ode to the elevator serviceman who observes the offspring of his co-op community becoming hoodlums and junkies. Comedian Paula Pell channels the portrayal of Elaine Stritch through her character Patty, who returns literally blind to finish her swan song amongst the masochistic chaos that surrounds her.
There’s an informative round table Skype discussion included on this release that offers some great insight into the inspiration behind this comedic tribute to the main feature. I appreciated it even further when Mulaney revealed that Meyers and himself drew from personal experiences of late night pitch meetings with the writing staff at SNL.
This Criterion release will be very enticing for musical buffs and a good primer if the stage show ever gets another revival. Hopefully this release will also shed light on how we as a society treat one another and aspire the concept of teamwork and equality opportunity going hand in hand.
Original Cast Album: “Company” Special Features:
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by Chris Hegedus and Nate Pennebaker, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New audio commentary by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim
- Audio commentary from 2001 featuring director D. A. Pennebaker, actor Elaine Stritch, and Broadway producer and director Harold Prince
- New conversation among Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and critic and television producer Frank Rich
- New interview with Tunick on the art of orchestrating, conducted by author Ted Chapin
- Never-before-heard audio excerpts from interviews with Stritch and Prince, conducted by D. A. Pennebaker and Hegedus in 2001
- “Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op,’” a 2019 episode of the TV series Documentary Now! that parodies the film
- Reunion of the cast and crew of “Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op’” recorded in 2020, featuring director Alexander Buono; writer-actor John Mulaney; actors Rénee Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Alex Brightman, and Paula Pell; and composer Eli Bolin
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by author Mark Harris
- New cover by Raphael Geroni
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection August 17th, 2021.