Criterion Corner: Original Cast Album: “Company” (#1090)

In 2019 (remember that time, a hundred years ago?), I nursed something of a briefish obsession with “Being Alive”, one of the songs from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s multi-award winning musical Company – and perhaps like many others, I first heard it in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), performed by Adam Driver. It’s perhaps something of an ironic use of the song: in Company, it is sung by the show’s central character Robert, an attractive but commitment-phobic man who, in the course of the song, comes to the realisation that he yearns for all of those things that make him shy away from an actual romantic relationship. In Marriage Story, the character who sings it is just coming out of a marriage via acrimonious divorce proceedings, and he mourns everything that he is in the process of losing. In spite of the very different contexts, however, the power of Sondheim’s song clearly comes through.

I don’t really know Sondheim all that well – or, at least, I know him much less than I wish I did. Living in Switzerland, I don’t have all that many opportunities to see his shows performed on stage, and my chance to see a production of Sunday in the Park with George in London was scuppered, at least for now, by this virus that started making the rounds a year or two ago. I’ve seen Assassins on stage and found its audacity quite amazing, even if it was a student production at the Edinburgh Fringe, with messy acoustics and less-than-ideal seats, and I’ve watched the occasional film version of his material, such as Sweeney Todd (which Julie wrote about quite recently) and Into the Woods. (I’ve also seen versions of the musicals that he wrote the lyrics for, namely the film adaptation of West Side Story and a wonderful staging of Gypsy.)

Everything that I’ve seen and heard of his makes me think that Sondheim would be right up my alley, so when Criterion announced their release of Original Cast Album: Company, the fly-on-the-wall making-of directed by documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker of the original cast recording, I ordered it the moment it was available – but, due to my film back catalogue having taken on Lovecraftian proportions, I’ve only just recently got around to watching it. Pennebaker’s film was to be the pilot episode for a series of similar making-ofs, but while it was unanimously praised at the New York Film Festival the year it came out, it never happened. And based on this sole episode, I wonder how well it would have worked – chances are that each recording session would have followed a fairly similar pattern – but what we got with this one is delightful.

Obviously there’s not exactly a narrative here: the original cast of Company come in, as does an orchestra and sound technicians, they record the songs over a long, gruelling day, they go home again – though one of the cast members, Elaine Stritch, has to come in again to finish the job after the long session gets the better of her, and she does so gloriously, making for some of the most memorable scenes. But the glimpses caught of the artists at work, the strange yet enticing mix of Broadway glamour and the more everyday workmanship of a recording session in a threadbare room, all of these make for a fascinating insight, into both Company and the recording process. It’s less immediately informational, perhaps, than it is an encapsulation of what it must have felt like in that room, over the course of that day.

It’s also all wonderfully ’70s: the hair, the clothes, the teeth, the guy in the cast that sings holding a lit cigarette in one of his hands. Original Cast Album: Company is a wonderful time capsule, and this extends to Company itself. While both the lyrics and the music have wit and humour to them, there is an underlying melancholy, pain and jadedness regarding relationships that reminded me of plays and films such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) and Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (which would come out a year after Sondheim’s show) – albeit Company seems much less cutting and acerbic than those – and some of which is captured again decades later in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm and Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Moody’s novel, even if the New Yorkers of Company aren’t exactly the same as the suburbanites of The Ice Storm. “Can I navigate adult relationships without getting hurt? And is everyone as lost and confused about this as I am?” seems to be a common tenor. Even in the funniest, most repartee-heavy songs, there is often a brittle edge, an earnest vulnerability and more than a hint of sadness hiding just beneath the surface.

Sondheim seems to have been the perfect composer and lyricist to capture the tone of the times, but Pennebaker’s documentary also makes him look like quite the character – though perhaps not always someone that’s easy to work with. In fact, Sondheim, the cast of Company and Pennebaker’s film make great material for one of the extras Criterion included on their release: “Original Cast Album: Co-Op”, an episode of the mockumentary series Documentary Now! While a parody of the original film, “Co-Op” is much more loving than ridiculing of its subject, less a critical send-up of Original Cast Album: Company than an (albeit tongue-in-cheek) homage. In fact, all of the extras that Criterion has provided, whether parodic or not, give the strong impression that the people who were involved in creating Company and the documentary have an inordinate fondness for what resulted.

Verdict: It definitely helps to have some affinity for musical theatre (even if for some of us it takes a while to get there) and for Sondheim, but if this is the case, Original Cast Album: Company is a must-buy. It is an funny, sweet, even exhilarating glimpse of a process that shows art for the exhausting work it often is. It captures the characters, the tone and feel, of Sondheim’s show, and it definitely made me want to see the show itself – though I suspect that Company might work somewhat less well at a remove from the time and place it was created. (I checked out some YouTube videos of more recent productions, and while they seem well crafted, there’s also this awareness to them that this is a successful, much-loved, sold-out show, and as a result the performances and songs lose some of the fragility that makes them work so well in the original context.) Would other episodes of Original Cast Album have captured the same magic, or would they have produced diminishing returns, as there are probably only so many ways an actual recording session can be turned into television? I don’t know, but I’m glad that Criterion gave this one their usual loving treatment – and at less than an hour, I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Original Cast Album: Company. In fact, I’m already nursing something of a minor obsession with Pamela Myers’ version of “Another Hundred People”. Perhaps I need to exorcise it with “Getting Married Today”, the lyrical “Barcelona” or “The Ladies Who Lunch” – or do I circle straight back to “Being Alive”?

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