D.A. Pennebaker’s film Original Cast Album: “Company” has been a curio for decades. The 1970 documentary, which captured the recording of the original cast album to Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, was initially meant to be part of a series of documentaries on such recording sessions. Soon after “Company” was screened, however, as per the film’s LaserDisc liner notes, all the original producers for the proposed series were hired to head up production at MGM, and left for Hollywood. The series was dead in the water.
But Original Cast Album: “Company,” and its chronicling of the marathon nearly 19-hour recording session, became the stuff of theater legend. Even though it only existed as a YouTube upload — it was never released digitally, and wasn’t easily available on physical media — it gained such a following that the mockumentary series Documentary Now! devoted an episode to it. Now, however, it’s available to stream in high definition via the Criterion Channel.
Though it’s been a cult film thus far, the appeal of Original Cast Album: “Company” stretches beyond those familiar with the specific musical, or interested in musical theater as a whole. Company focuses on the 35th birthday of a single man whose married friends have different opinions about what he should be doing with his romantic life. What makes the documentary so compelling is that it captures the process of re-creating a performance that’s meant to be experienced live. The songs on the album will have to live up to audience members’ memories of the show, and serve as a substitute for those unable to see it. Standing in a recording studio, doing repeated takes as the hours wear on, isn’t exactly conducive to making art that feels fresh and urgent.
That unfortunate truth is best represented in the film’s final 15 minutes. It’s past midnight, and the only song left to record is “The Ladies Who Lunch.” As Elaine Stritch sings take after take, her voice begins to fray. Everyone’s energy dwindles. The sequence is harrowing; it feels like a losing battle, especially as everyone — including Stritch, Sondheim, and producer Thomas Z. Shepard — loses patience.
Eventually, after Stritch has screamed herself hoarse and terse criticisms have been made and argued with, the group agrees to record the orchestra’s part, and have Stritch revisit the recording a few days later. When she does, in full hair and makeup, in anticipation of a matinee performance, the energy is palpably different, and she knocks the song out in a single take. There’s no way to ensure the capture of lightning in a bottle, and the process of trying to do so can be exhausting.
The film speaks for itself, but Criterion is also streaming a commentary featuring Pennebaker, Stritch, and producer Harold Prince, recorded in 2001. In it, Pennebaker explains that he wasn’t sure there was really going to be a story to the film, and that his best course of action seemed to be simply recording everything that happened. Stritch, for her part, refers to herself as the “Cinderella girl” of the film. She thought she’d have trouble recording the song, and she even says she was scared. “I think my main problem in doing this on the record is I wanted to make it just like the theater,” she says, “and I wanted to make it more powerful because they couldn’t see me.” Hearing her and Pennebaker reflect on the experience feels like a necessary addition, allowing her to tell her side of the story.
The Criterion Channel’s final extra is a conversation with the cast of the Documentary Now! episode that spoofs the film, featuring John Mulaney, Richard Kind, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and more. In addition to speaking a little about the origins of the episode, which centers on a fake musical called Co-Op, they discuss the documentary itself, shedding some light on how iconic the film has become to the theater community. The conversation, while not as funny as the episode itself, adds to the legend around the documentary, piecing together personal recollections of and reactions to the film, and emphasizing the love borne for it.
The new ease of watching the documentary itself is a coup, made all the more monumental by the added commentary track and conversation. Original Cast Album: “Company” is a vital part of film history — and a unique look into the recording process for Broadway shows. “I wonder if [Sondheim] thinks [the film] has the life that it has,” Mulaney says, in the supplemental conversation. “Watching him work has meant so much to so many people.” Now that legacy isn’t hidden anymore — it’s just a click away.
Original Cast Album: “Company” is streaming on the Criterion Channel now.