Original Cast Album: “Company”
This holy grail for both documentary and theater aficionados offers a tantalizingly rare glimpse behind the Broadway curtain. In 1970, right after the triumphant premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking concept musical Company, the renowned composer and lyricist, his director Harold Prince, the show’s stars, and a large pit orchestra all went into a Manhattan recording studio as part of a time-honored Broadway tradition: the recording of the original cast album. What ensued was a marathon session in which, with the pressures of posterity and the coolly exacting Sondheim’s perfectionism hanging over them, all involved pushed themselves to the limit—including theater legend Elaine Stritch, who fought anxiety and exhaustion to record her iconic rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” With thrilling immediacy, legendary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker offers an up-close view of the larger-than-life personalities, frayed-nerve energy, and explosive creative intensity that go into capturing the magic of live performance.
D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Original Cast Album: Company is presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration that comes from a scan of the 16mm A/B Ektachrome reversal. The opening credits were taken from a 35mm blow-up.
The film looks surprisingly good, the restoration cleaning things up nicely, and it offers a sharp improvement over the previous restoration. There’s a more film-like consistency here, the heavy grain structure rendered cleanly without any noticeable problems; blocking patterns never stuck out. The picture is also surprisingly sharp with a good level of detail, things really only limited by the 16mm source materials and the original photography.
Marks and bits of dirt pop up here and there, along with what appear to be the faint remnants of the original splices, but it’s all infrequent. The colour scheme is limited, browns and such appearing to be dominant, but there are some nice oranges, reds, and blues. The look leans warmer overall yet whites still look white. Lighting conditions can limit the blacks in some ways, flattening them out a bit in places, but in general they’re strong and again I suspect it's all related to the original lighting and photography.
An impressive looking restoration when all is said and done.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. To my amazement the audio ends up coming off rather dynamic. The musical numbers, featuring a wide bit of range, are the stand out moments, but even the general discussions between cast and crew manage to come off crisp and clean as well with incredible fidelity. The audio ends up being a wonderful surprise, especially for a documentary.
Criterion makes sure this special edition for the film is well worth the sticker price, packing on a number of great supplements. They do port over the audio commentary from the previous DVD edition, which features Pennebaker, Broadway producer Harold Prince, and actor Elain Stritch. The track is edited together between what sound to be two separate sessions, one with Pennebaker and Prince together, and the other sounding to be from an interview with Stritch conducted by Pennebaker and possibly Chris Hegdus, who appears in outtakes from the recordings elsewhere on this disc. Despite Stritch's contribution comes from what is clearly more along the lines of an interview, it’s still evident she is watching the film at times. This track ends up being remarkably broad in its scope when considering the film’s relatively short runtime (it’s only 53-minutes long), Stritch and Prince talking about the musical and the recording session, while Pennebaker comments on the events from his perspective before getting into the more technical aspects around the film, like finding the story. Unsurprisingly, since it does take up a good chunk of the already short film, there is quite a bit of discussion around Stritch’s final session, Stritch explaining things from her point of view. Still, we do get some conflicting details around it from Prince and throughout the many interviews found on this disc, with some suspecting Stritch may have been playing it up for the camera. Altogether the track is impressively edited and flows nicely.
The real gem to this release—and one hell of a get on Criterion’s part—is a newly recorded commentary featuring composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim talks about Pennebaker, his camera (which he describes as being an “appendage” of the director), the actual filming, and even shares backstories behind some moments in the film. But the best instances from the track come when Sondheim talks specifically about the musical itself, detailing the adaptation of the original story from a book by George Furth, and his thought process behind the musical numbers and their respective placements, making sure to tell the story and keep a rhythm that musicals require.
More details are shared about the musical through a couple of new interview segments, the first featuring Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and critic Frank Rich and the second featuring Tunick and author Ted Chapin. The 18-minute Tunick/Chapin discussion focuses specifically on what an orchestrator does and how Tunick adapted Sondheim’s songs for an orchestra. He even talks about the recording session captured in the film and touches on technical difficulties that came about, which leads to discussion around terms like “fix it in the mix.” The 29-minute group conversation is more expansive, offering a general overview behind the creation of the musical, filling in gaps missing from Sondheim’s and Tunick’s respective individual contributions to the disc (where they focus specifically on their parts in it) and expanding into details around casting, lighting, and so forth. They also talk about moments in Pennebaker’s film and offer more backstory behind them, including how things sound to have inevitably led to Elaine Stritch’s problematic recording session at the end.
I was expecting material around the musical itself but Criterion has really gone out of their way here, managing to get Tunick and Sondheim to delve deep into the art of writing a musical, and for someone like me, who knows very little about musical theater, it proved to be not only informative but incredibly fun, too.
And in another fun little addition, as they did with their recent Blu-ray edition for Salesman, Criterion includes an episode from the spoof television series created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas, Documentary Now! The 25-minute episode written by John Mulaney and Seth Meyers and entitled Original Cast Album: Co-Op is a direct spoof of Pennebaker’s film, the story revolving around the album recording session for Co-Op, a fictional musical that sounds to be about people living in, or hoping to get into, a housing co-op. The episode impressively recreates the environment of Pennebaker’s film and goes for a similar look, Mulaney’s own stand-in for Sondheim wearing similar clothes, but it of course sets everything up for laughs. The story takes things a different route when the cast learns early on the show has been cancelled, leading to hot heads and frustrations the rest of the night while everyone performs terrible numbers around wall colours and cocaine binges, all done in a very Sondheim-esque style. There are direct moments lifted from the actual film, including a recreation of Stritch’s meltdown, but one of the funniest moments (outside of Richard Kind’s random outbursts) comes when Mulaney’s lyricist approaches Renée Elise Goldsberry’s more-than-enthusiastic singer to inform her she is pronouncing the word “ruined” incorrectly (she’s not), which is a play on the scene where Sondheim is working on the pronunciation of “boobie.” I’m very fond of the series and this is one of my favourite episodes, so I’m happy to have it here as I don’t believe it’s available on DVD or Blu-ray yet; the episode is from the third season and as far as I know only seasons one and two are available on home video.
I would have been just as happy to get the episode on its own as a fun little bonus but Criterion also includes a cast and crew reunion for the episode, recorded over a teleconferencing software and featuring Mulaney, director Alexander Buono, actors Goldsberry, Kind, Alex Brightman and Paula Pell, and composer Eli Bolin. As expected the 33-minute conversation covers the origins of the episode, its writing and filming, but what proved quite valuable—as with Bill Hader’s contribution to Criterion’s disc for Salesman—is the discussion around the study and research Mulaney and Bolin did around Pennebaker’s film and Company the musical, focusing on Pennebaker’s camera work and how Sondheim structures his songs, the two, along with director Buono, sharing their observations. This then segues into discussion about writing comedy songs and actual cast album recording sessions, Goldsberry sharing her experiences on Hamilton. I was expecting this inclusion to be a bit of a goof but it ends up adding another level of insight into the film and its subject.
Closing off the disc, Criterion includes around 12-minutes’ worth of audio outtakes from the Pennebaker/Stritch/Prince commentary (with Chris Hegedus even making an appearance). They’re quick snippets, but the more notable material comes from Stritch getting a bit more into her personal life around the time of Company’s release. The material plays over clips from the film.
The edition also comes with an insert featuring an essay by Mark Harris, who not only examines the film but also expands on details around the musical, even mentioning where Sondheim would change lyrics sometime later.
In all, Criterion has put together a wonderful special edition for the film, managing to even bring in Sondheim and Tunick to talk about the original musical. It’s one of their best put together editions in the last little while.
The film only runs 53-minutes, but Criterion makes this edition more than worth it thanks to a wonderful presentation and a superb collection of material that not only delivers a fun spoof of the film, but also features Sondheim and Tunick discussing their original musical. It’s a superbly assembled package that comes with a very high recommendation.