Original Cast Album: Company was originally envisioned as the pilot for a tv series. A collection of TV length documentaries that would give the public a fly on the wall glimpse at life in the theatre. Starting with the recording of the cast album for Stephen Sondheim’s controversial musical, Company. Before the project could be completed, the producers of the documentary were unfortunately whisked off to Hollywood to head up MGM, leaving this single hour of documentary as evidence of an idea that never really manifested.
The documentary itself is a fascinating glimpse into another world for most of us, though we of course acknowledge the work and dedication that goes along with any sort of elite trade, theatre among them. It’s all too easy to imagine them doing a couple of shows a day and then swanning about for the remainder of their time.
What we see here puts that theory squarely to bed. Sondheim is renowned as a perfectionist, and we see here that he has been like this from the start. Joined by Thomas Z. Shepard as producer on the album, between them they politely demand the best from their cast. Some moments amount to micromanaging, as Sondheim takes quiet moments to speak to the singers and request tiny adjustments to their pronunciation of words. They always do this kindly however, this is not Whiplash, nor is it what we imagine happening to actors in Hollywood. These performers seem like willing participants, happy to be puppets for the artists whose work they bring to life.
Sondheim’s work is difficult, he often doesn’t allow his actors the chance to breathe, and he creates melodies and harmonies that seem to contradict as much as they compliment. This requires the absolute paramount of concentration to perform. This is before the days when there were feature films of his work, in 1970, he was incredibly avante-garde. As such, while Company received mixed reviews, they were sold out for weeks on end.
There are occasional brief interviews but for the most part, the documentary is simply observational. This however allows a certain organic picture to grow. As the actors sing, we can hear the adjustments being made at the sound desk as each part of the music is tweaked to create the best sound. Conversations between them reveal that they expect to be working until 4am and they all accept this as normal. The differences between then and now show themselves in actors who smoke between takes and even while singing in some cases.
This new Blu-ray release from Criterion contains their usual excellent selection of bonus features, mostly consisting of interviews and audio commentaries that add further depth to the main event. However, as releases go, it is somewhat niche. And at less than an hour long one wonders whether they can justify the cost of a Criterion release for it. For theatre fans though, it’s an absolute must.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by Chris Hegedus and Nate Pennebaker, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New audio commentary by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim
- Audio commentary from 2001 featuring director D. A. Pennebaker, actor Elaine Stritch, and Broadway producer and director Harold Prince
- New conversation among Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and critic and television producer Frank Rich
- New interview with Tunick on the art of orchestrating, conducted by author Ted Chapin
- Never-before-heard audio excerpts from interviews with Stritch and Prince, conducted by D. A. Pennebaker and Hegedus in 2001
- “Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op,’” a 2019 episode of the TV series Documentary Now! that parodies the film
- Reunion of the cast and crew of “Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op’” recorded in 2020, featuring director Alexander Buono; writer-actor John Mulaney; actors Rénee Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Alex Brightman, and Paula Pell; and composer Eli Bolin
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by author Mark Harris
Original Cast Album: Company is being released on new special edition Blu-ray from Criterion on September 13th.