Eugene Kang: This month, we are delving into the work of D.A. Pennebaker, the famous documentary filmmaker. Known mainly for his depictions of Sixties American counterculture, our choice for this Living Room Chat seems to be a big departure from Pennebaker’s usual oeuvre. Original Cast Album: Company was meant to be a pilot for a TV series, which would have focused on the making of multiple Broadway musical cast albums. According to Pennebaker himself in a written prologue to this doc, the project was abandoned when the executive that gave him the idea left to ran MGM and never returned his phone calls. As for the film itself, Pennebaker struck gold in many ways. The first was that the musical being recorded was ‘Company’ by Stephen Sondheim, a work that has only grown in cultural cachet many decades out from its release. The second was that most of the album was shot in an intense overnight marathon, with a full orchestra and with notorious perfectionist Sondheim at the helm. Even outside of these factors, Original Cast Album has been hard to find even on physical media and has become something of a holy grail for cinephiles and Broadway aficionados for the longest time. An episode of Documentary Now! titled “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” which featured the likes of John Mulaney and Renee Elise Goldsberry, sparked further interest in making this documentary available to a wider public. What I would like to discuss is whether Original Cast Album is worth all the hype, and whether this film if made by someone less renowned and skilled as Pennebaker would have achieved the same degree of acclaim. But before we start, we should probably share our familiarity with both D.A. Pennebaker and Stephen Sondheim for context.
Ben McDonald: I’m actually not terribly familiar with either artist. This film was my first Pennebaker (almost immediately after which I watched his 1979 concert film of David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust performance), but I have been getting into documentaries as of late and will surely check out his more widely renowned work in the near future. Despite having seen a number of live musicals over my life, I am also not familiar with Sondheim beyond his work on ‘West Side Story’. So I basically came into this blind, maybe having heard a couple of the tunes from Company out of context (most recently ‘Being Alive’ in Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story last year), but knowing almost nothing else about the film. I take it you have a bit more familiarity with both Eugene?
Eugene: I read the biography of Stephen Sondheim for fun back in high school, and read librettos of nearly all his musicals in my spare time, so that should be some indication of how big a fan I am of his. Much of his music isn’t as instantly melodic or memorable as the music of other Broadway composers can be, but its complexity, juxtaposed with his sophisticated lyrics, often creates a thematic depth that few Broadway modern composers can emulate. For example, the presence of Sondheim’s music in last year’s Marriage Story is perfect for a story about the tenuous status of even the most solid relationships. ‘Company’ is about a bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday, and much of the musical is made up of the personal stories and testimonies about Bobby’s relationships. Both his friends and his many girlfriends chime in, and together their stories form a complex portrait of a man deeply afraid of commitment and losing his freedom. For me, much of the thrill of watching Original Cast Album was seeing the music being performed by the top notch cast, who breathed life into Sondheim’s sometimes confusing musical. Hearing and seeing the trio perform the harmonies for ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ is kind of like seeing pro athletes train. Witnessing Beth Howland‘s rapid fire delivery of the wildly verbose ‘Getting Married Today’ is a virtuoso display in breath control and enunciation. And Elaine Stritch deserves a whole movie of her own, but before I nerd out too much, I was wondering, as someone not very familiar with Sondheim, what did you think of the music and what elements of the filmmaking stood out to you?
Ben: I’ve always really loved musicals, but I’ve found my interest in them drifting away over the past couple of years for one reason or another. Watching this brief 50-minute documentary about one I’ve never seen before was a strong reminder of what I love so much about them. So yeah, I really liked the music quite a bit – it’s very unique compared to other musicals I’ve seen and heard: very robust and sophisticated in its rhythm, arrangements, and lyrics. I very much wanted to watch a production of ‘Company’ after watching this doc. As far as filmmaking goes, one thing I noticed was how often Pennebaker relies on intense close-ups, and I think an awful lot of what makes this short little film so special is that precise technique. When you go to the theatre, even if you’re in the front row, it can be difficult to make out the expressions on the actors and actresses’ faces. In such intense close-ups, it becomes astonishingly clear how difficult this material is for them. Maybe part of this is because they’re making a recording and not putting on a genuine performance, but I noticed many of their faces were a lot less emotive than I was expecting, and I have to only assume that that is because of how intense of focus they need to have to perform these charts with such pinpoint precision and accuracy. I’m glad you brought up the point about it being like watching athletes perform, because that was almost the exact thought I had when watching it (particularly the recording of ‘Getting Married Today’).
Eugene: This doc definitely would not have been as widely remembered if it hadn’t been about a musical as celebrated as ‘Company’, despite having Pennebaker at the helm. Pennebaker has had a special relationship to music and musical figures from the very start of his career. His earliest short Daybreak Express is a visual poem set to the Duke Ellington song of the same name, and his masterful sense of editing and pacing is evident even in just that five minute short. Pennebaker would also make use of lightweight equipment and synchronous sound to give his documentaries a more immediate feel as it does here. Even though he is clearly giving the performers space to work, it feels as if we are present in the room and able to freely move among the participants and eavesdrop on their conversations. It’s almost Altman-esque in a way, especially since we get a few narratives running through such a short piece. There is Sondheim’s perfectionist tendencies, which is both the spoken and unspoken source of tension during this recording. There are also the performer’s struggles with themselves. Seeing very talented people not nailing something right away is always a fascinating process, and Pennebaker himself points out in the prologue that there is a vast difference between what he records with his camera and what the music producers record on their equipment. What might look and sound amazing on camera may not translate well to a purely aural medium.
Perhaps the best example of this is the segment with Elaine Stritch, who stands out even among these extremely talented performers. To most people, her performance of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is still top-notch, but clearly Stritch and Sondheim and the producers are all very tired and only growing more so. Yet Stritch stands out because she is a more seasoned performer and Sondheim and the producers are younger than her, which creates a more equal relationship than the other, younger performers who really follow Sondheim’s lead. This is parodied brilliantly in the Documentary Now! episode I mentioned before when the most elder actress only gets more and more irritated when the younger men are preventing her from going to an eye appointment because of their lack of management and their egos getting in the way. If you haven’t already, I would really recommend watching the Documentary Now! episode because it is so exact in its satire, yet also a really loving homage to this film. If this had just been the start of the promised series, do you think it would have lasted long, or do you think it would have fizzled when they chose to focus on a subpar show?
Ben: I actually watched the Documentary Now! episode immediately after so all the smaller details would be fresh in my mind to get parodied. And you’re absolutely right, they do a good job of poking fun at that scene and several others in the original film. Elaine Stritch’s scenes are probably the most exhausting and stressful to watch in the film, because while you feel like she’s still giving a decent performance of the song, you know that nothing she does at that hour with that level of physical, psychological, and emotional fatigue is going to live up to the extremely high standards Sondheim and the producers have set. What was most surprising to me, however, was how night and day the recordings she made the next night compared to the ones she failed to make the previous night. That’s an interesting question you pose about the potential series. As much as it’s an intriguing idea for a continued series, I’m going to go with my gut and say it would have lost its audience eventually (maybe today that would be different, as there seem to be thousands upon thousands of shows that get funded easily and find an audience). But there’s also something about it being a one-off film that I think makes it special. I’m not sure watching a full-length series of these docs would be of much interest to me beyond maybe seeing one or two of my favorite musicals. What do you think?
Eugene: I agree. Honestly, I could see this show tanking when the Broadway show they choose to feature turns out to be a forgettable stinker. I would say that 90 percent of this film’s charm is due to the fact that it’s ‘Company’ by Stephen Sondheim. And as good of a behind the scenes feature as Original Cast Album is, it’s going to pale in comparison to seeing a live version of the show or even a well-directed recording of a stage show such as ‘Hamilton‘. And as skilled a documentarian as Pennebaker is, I think even he would have been hard-pressed to keep this format fresh after multiple episodes and seasons. The behind the scenes feature has a special place in film history since quite a few make excellent standalone movies. Lost in La Mancha and Hearts of Darkness come to mind though those are about the making of famous films. If readers are craving to satisfy that Sondheim itch that Original Cast Album might have left, I would recommend the Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which documents the original production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, which not only featured an unusual concept (the play goes backwards in time) but also because the whole cast was made up of mostly teenagers. I would also recommend the concert doc Madonna: Truth or Dare, which follows Madonna on tour, and we get to see the rich relationships she fosters with her backup dancers and other collaborators, many of whom are LGBTQ. Do you have any suggestions for films similar to Original Cast Album?
Ben: I’d say the concert movie that Pennebaker made of David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert that I mentioned before (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, also known as Bowie 1973) has a somewhat similar observational aesthetic, obviously because it’s made by the same filmmaker. I’d also recommend the two Radiohead ‘From the Basement’ movies – In Rainbows: From the Basement and The King of Limbs: From the Basement. They’re much more of straightforward, filmed album recordings than Original Cast Album (which I think as we’ve touched upon has a more directly felt artistic presence), but I think they achieve a similar effect as Pennebaker’s film in that they reveal layers to their music that can’t be heard by just listening to the albums or even seeing them performed live. The music of Radiohead and Stephen Sondheim couldn’t be more different obviously, but I think they’re both so layered in texture and rhythmic complexity that seeing them performed in a studio setting is an aesthetically rewarding experience for fans of either artist.