‘Sweating out the notes’: the stunning portrait of Sondheim’s Company by DA Pennebaker

By Chris Wiegand
Elaine Stritch, centre, in Original Cast Album: Company.
Up close and personal … Elaine Stritch, centre, in Original Cast Album: Company. Photograph: Criterion

After a six-week tryout in Boston and a week of previews, Stephen Sondheim’s Company opened on Broadway in April 1970. But after the nerves of opening night, another hurdle came the following weekend: the original cast recording of the musical. Rather than spend Sunday recuperating, the cast and musicians gathered for a tense 15-hour studio session to create the album.

Shows change from night to night, even from matinee to evening; part of theatre’s magic is the alchemy of the two or three hours you spend in that particular company of audience and performers. But the album of a musical was – and, in many cases, still is despite the rise of NT Live – its testament. With the stakes that high, it is surprising that film-maker DA Pennebaker and his crew were allowed through the door of the Columbia 30th Street studio to make a documentary about the recording.

The resulting film, Original Cast Album: Company – newly released on Blu-ray – is enlightening on many levels, not just that making a musical in 70s New York really did mean de rigueur cravats, sideburns, polo necks and shades. Pennebaker’s agile camerawork takes us up close to the musicians – hopping from flute to trumpet to violin to triangle during the recording of Another Hundred People, cutting elsewhere from a pipe-smoking guitarist to a fag-in-hand singer. Musicians, of course, are usually buried away from a theatre audience and the performers themselves some distance from even the front rows. But Pennebaker’s proximity to the cast is alarming – his camera going “up and down the wazoo” as Elaine Stritch later put it. He captures the glint in Stritch’s eye, the slightest smile forming on her lips, and practically documents Dean Jones’s dental work in an extreme closeup as he gives the 11 o’clock number Being Alive. It may as well be renamed Being Uvula.

Fastidious … Stephen Sondheim in Original Cast Album: Company.
Fastidious … Stephen Sondheim in Original Cast Album: Company. Photograph: Criterion

Pennebaker wisely gives that number, among others, some space to breathe so that we can savour Sondheim’s crisp lyrics. And as Company is a practically plotless musical, its numbers freed from storytelling and instead focusing on the messy emotions of life, the songs can be appreciated by those unfamiliar with the central character of singleton Bobby and the relationships that revolve around him.

It is fascinating to see the creation of a work of art that is its own distinctive thing, separate to the stage musical and with expanded instrumentation. You can see the actors are delivering the songs in character to an extent – keeping tics they may have used on stage – but by necessity, as one song puts it, they are literally lined up Side by Side by Side at their music stands. The double meaning of “company” – as a group of creatives making the show, not just the friends in the story – comes alive when we see the singers crowded around the mics, the orchestra opposite them.

It’s intriguing, too, to see the split attention between performing for Pennebaker’s camera (carried, Sondheim remembered, “like a parrot” on his shoulder) and performing for the audio recording. The studio provides its own set design of sorts – a symphony of cables, mics and dials – and we see masters at work around the edges. There’s Sondheim – frowning, arms folded, scribbling notes, often rubbing his eyes – sharing insights with producer Hal Prince and gently giving actors precise instructions, such as how in one song an F sharp has gradually morphed into an A in the show and needs fixing. It’s telling, too, which of the creatives clearly perform for the camera and which are more discreet.

Side by side by side … Original Cast Album: Company.
Side by side by side … Original Cast Album: Company. Photograph: Criterion

Attention to detail is so evident throughout the process that it is wryly humorous to hear the apparently un-ironic announcement for a fresh run-through of one song: “You Could Drive a Person Crazy – take 10!” Everyone is at pains to give the best version of each song, everyone getting increasingly frazzled as words such as “definitive” and “permanent” are uttered with anxiety. Beth Howland, racing through the patter song Getting Married Today, barely has time to blink let alone catch her breath. In the film we go on a journey through the songs with the actors – Dean Jones is “practically sweating out the notes”, in Sondheim’s words, as he gives what the composer and lyricist thinks is the best version of Being Alive. The tension builds throughout the day, reaching its peak in the small hours when Stritch steps up to do The Ladies Who Lunch. Sondheim has explained that she was due to record the song – which would become one of her signature numbers – much earlier in the day but swapped places with Jones so he could do Being Alive earlier.

By the time Stritch sings she is exhausted, her voice betraying the day’s sips of brandy. As she does take after take – in a room almost entirely full of men, waiting for this last song to be done – the record producer Thomas Shepard’s frustration is evident and even Stritch joins the chorus of disapproval, screaming “Oh shut up!” at herself when listening to one playback. It is agonising to watch but, when she returns a couple of mornings later for a fresh attempt, we see her nail it almost first time. The lines she sings sound all the more glorious for the ease we see in her face. In the film, our relationship with the songs and their singers is totally different to watching a live show or listening to the album – the singers’ conquests of each song become storylines.

There are some superb documentaries about Sondheim – Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about how Merrily We Roll Along bombed on Broadway, is a fascinating account of the after-effects of a failure. Company would run for almost 700 more performances after its OCR was recorded but the musical’s longevity was by no means guaranteed, which gives the documentary its edge. Pennebaker’s film, running just under an hour, is revelatory in getting under the skin of the main players. And the director’s opening revelation will exasperate musical-theatre nerds as we hear that this was the pilot for a whole series on original cast recordings that never got made. The following year there might just have been a companion film on Sondheim’s Follies.


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