While musicians tune their instruments and producers, actors, and theatermakers sit on the other side of the glass, a core paradox presents itself: Can you ever contain genius, keep it from wisping away? The experience of seeing a great musical or play is uncapturable. Hybrid experiences like National Theatre Live broadcasts are interesting, but not theater. How can you contain the immediacy of live performance forever? In the 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, this question nags a record producer (Thomas Z. Shephard), a theater director (Hal Prince), a composer and lyricist (Stephen Sondheim), and all the actors and musicians working with them. Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker observed them putting together their cast recording for the musical comedy Company. As an exemplary document of anxious artists, particularly Sondheim, it has taken on a mythic status in both film and theater.
Company — about a New York bachelor turning 35 and reflecting on his life via his relationships with his married / about to be married / about to divorce friends and the three women he casually dates, asking himself if these personal ties are “what it’s really about” — is fundamentally about the limits of space. At the time, the show structuring itself around only a birthday party and no other plot was radical. As leading lothario Bobby imagines his life and loneliness, he must conceive of his identity and space both literally and figuratively. Boris Aronson’s chrome and plastic jungle set for the production was reminiscent of the scaffolding and construction that paints every city block, a playground for the bourgeoisie. The intimacy between Bobby and his friends fluctuates in each scene, sometimes changing mid-dialogue. “Will I see you again?” he asks repeatedly.
But it’s hard to describe space on an album, and it’s harder to convey that thematic crux in a film that is disinclined to hold its viewers’ hands. Ephemerality is central to both the creation of the album — performance as variable made permanent — and to Bobby’s floating, unanchored existence from scene to scene. But the documentary artfully articulates the ideas of the musical in its own way, while elegantly focusing on performance, collaboration, and Sondheim’s specific artistry. Beth Howland zips through an iconic patter song, “(Not) Getting Married Today,” perfecting her breath control and working with Sondheim to make minor but meaningful changes in the spaces between words, all to ensure that this permanent record of the song will be a worthy tribute to every WASP lady who’s ever had a panic attack while getting cold feet before her vows. You can grasp the layers of sound and voice as Pamela Myers sings “Another Hundred People” and Pennebaker’s cameras catch the various sections of the orchestra repeating a motif from the musical’s opening number. Dean Jones gives it his all on each take of “Being Alive,” the big finale, even as fatigue blooms in his eyes. Pennebaker keeps close to his subjects, zooming in on their faces to find what you couldn’t see on a stage. It creates the illusion that the viewer is creating with them.
But the collision of these ideas about space and genius and artistic expression are best embodied by one particular scene: Elaine Stritch singing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” In the wake of the film’s release for public television, and subsequently the internet age, those who sit at the intersection of musical theater, film, and (often) gay male culture have both decontextualized the scene and certified its place of indispensability in these respective histories. Playing the older, wealthier, occasionally predatory Joanne, the anxiety of permanence looms over Stritch. It certainly shapes and informs everyone else’s actions, but at this point, everyone already knew that the number was a showstopper, and one that was written with the actress in mind. But as she does take after take, the men behind the glass grow increasingly cruel, and the smallness of the booth closes in on her. Sondheim shakes his head wearily, and for one take Shepard asks for it to be “sung this time.” The tough song claws at Stritch’s vocal chords, and everyone’s frustrations in turn recalibrate the venture of creating the album from one of joy to one of necessity. As good as they knew Company was, like all theater, it could all just disappear. (Later, in 1981, Sondheim and Prince’s Merrily We Roll Along closed after just 16 performances. The next day, they spent as many hours recording the original cast album, which assured the score’s place in the Broadway canon.) The ephemerality feels particularly poignant now, in the wake of the recent deaths of both Prince and Pennebaker.
Such impermanence is central to “The Ladies Who Lunch.” You don’t need to know the show to understand that the song is fundamentally about the invisibility and passiveness that upper-class women experience through sexist conditioning. This adds insult to the injury of the way Stritch is treated. Viewers projecting camp on the scene flatten that aspect to only the supposedly outsized reactions of Stritch, completely drained but pushed (and pushing herself) to finish it.
The appeal of Company the musical and the importance of this particular scene are inextricable. Bobby is desperate for someone to force him to care, to make him alive, and yet he himself cannot provide that for anyone else in his life. Commitment is a form of permanence. A friend of mine once quipped that “[Company is a] show that refuses to give back emotionally.” It’s then disturbingly unsurprising that Shepard, Prince, and Sondheim should be as emotionally withholding behind the scenes. At a February 2019 screening at the IFC Center of Original Cast Album: Company and its Documentary Now! parody, Original Cast Album: Co-Op, Shepard, who was present in the audience, remarked that he felt contrite when watching the scene: “When you’re working with someone who is having a hard time, it’s a producer’s job to not kick them when they’re already down, but help them do the best they can.” The agita over capturing perfection was on his mind too, and even he knows it was pretty inexcusable.
Original Cast Album: Company demystifies the idea of preserving perfection. It’s not a bunch of kids putting on a show, but real people whose livelihoods and legacies are dependent on working toward the unreachable, whether on stage or in a booth. John Mulaney, who co-wrote and stars in Co-Op, noted at the screening that what appealed to him about the film was the glamorlessness of creative, collaborative work, and the little things you do together. In the burned-out faces of the Company cast and crew, he saw the burned-out faces of the Saturday Night Live writers room (where he worked for six years), egos winding like vines and obscuring their common goal. SNL, though, has been subject to constant self-mythologization, its process of creation documented constantly. And SNL is recorded, so a version is always kept for posterity. In contrast, theater will always exist in a liminal space.
Ironically, a work that does a lot to document this process has itself been mythologized. Long out of print on DVD (the 2000 release fetches around $95.45 on eBay), it has popped up on YouTube every so often, and clips have focused more on the immediate performances of the songs than the entire documentation of the recording. The film is only available on VHS, and obtainable on the internet in less official ways. (When Alex Brightman of Co-Op asked Pennebaker if he knew the film was only viewable online, the director quipped, “I had no idea where it went.”) The self-reflexive reflection of who we are in our work, and how much of us is in it and what’s left of us in the aftermath, is integral to Pennebaker’s films, like Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop. It’s also crucial to understanding Hal Prince’s shows, such as Cabaret and Merrily We Roll Along. That Sondheim (who also has a fixation with this idea) effectively brings the three of them together suggests that artistic perfection and identity live in transient moments, that even the moments that are preserved are paltry comparisons to the work involved. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?