Remembering Company: Cast Recording (1970)

With an interview with filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker

We lost one of the giants of musical theatre recently, Hal Prince. Here is a piece on COMPANY: CAST RECORDING by Lee Gambin, who also interviewed D.A. Pennebaker for it, another legend who we just lost. Prince was producer on the original musical and also produced the recording with collaborator Stephen Sondheim and Pennebaker was a phenomenal filmmaker who revolutionised documentary cinema.

Hal Prince

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company dissected relationships, scrutinized the concept of the middle classes, and was ambitious, innovative and emotionally complicated. The non-linear narrative was told through a series of snapshots that were strung together through the songs, stories and situations experienced by its protagonist Bobby, a dedicated promiscuous bachelor surrounded by (sometimes) well-meaning married friends. What would become a trend in musical theatre – to have vignette-driven shows take the spotlight alongside more traditional book-heavy pieces – would also establish the notion of the concept musical being a commercially viable venture. Episodic fuelled musicals would be varied pieces that ranged in style, form and content. From the sexploitation craze with porn-influenced musicals such as Let My People Come, all the way through to comic-strip adaptations like the deceptively very adult You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. In many ways, Company somehow sat in the middle of these dramatically different works, in that its primary concerns were all about the complexities of sex and gender politics, the manic ups and downs of staying single compared to similarly nutsy married life, finding the right person to “make one aware of being alive” and everything in between. But also, much like the aforementioned Peanuts comics musical, Company is essentially about the human condition and perpetual failure, it is also provides biting insight into the dark recesses of loneliness and the inability to connect. As famed theatre critic John Lahr points out, “In Sondheim musicals, people lose things” and in some ways, Bobby is an adult Charlie Brown; run down, struggling and forever re-evaluating himself and his choices. Company is narratively interested in examining the differences and unities in both succumbing to marriage and monogamy, as well as presenting the complications embedded within the freedoms that a Peter Pan-syndrome fuelled idea of promiscuity and eternal singlehood promises. The charismatic and attractive Bobby is surrounded by his overbearing but loving (in their own weird way) married friends, and while his female pals worry about the perpetually single Bobby (lamenting over every single choice of girlfriend), his male friends live vicariously through this sexually active bachelor as he indiscriminately sows his seed. As the musical progresses, however, the men too secretly begin to see Bobby as ultimately a lonely and disconnected figure. 

The musical has never had a filmic adaptation (arguably because it is far too high concept, and would struggle to translate well on screen), but it eventually had a couple of filmed stage versions in the 2000s. However, it is D.A. Pennebaker’s incredible film Company: Cast Recording where we get an amazing fly on the wall insight into the creation of the original Broadway cast album. 

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim walks Pamela Myers through “Another Hundred People”

Pennebaker recalls:

I knew Steve (Sondheim) slightly, not well, but slightly, and the guy who was the producer of this film asked me to shoot the recording of the cast album. In those days there was an effort to make a record of Broadway musicals because back then the record industry wasn’t quite dead yet, and they wanted to bring out a film to come out with it that you could play on television to help sell the record. So we had three synced cameras so that all three camera people could shoot and be in synch with what we recorded. The cameras were small and handheld and we had a great control over what we were filming. They had not been able to sell it to a network, so what they did was sell it individually to different parts of the country and different areas of television in the county so it was put together in parts and since different areas had different sponsors I knew it had to be made as three different acts, that is that it had to have spaces between the acts in order for the networks to put in their ads in between those. So it turned it into a three act play unto itself. Steve was just great and the man recording producing was just great as well. It turned out to be a lucky draw.

Pennebaker’s Company: Cast Recording is an incredible look at the long, gruelling recording of the soundtrack album and it is in every way just as mesmerizing as Sondheim’s ground breaking musical itself. Unlike recording the songs of standard musicians, working on a musical requires a lot of acute direction – both musically and dramatically – and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, with his genius cemented on both fronts, completely runs the show and conjures up magnificent performances from a very talented cast. There are some spectacular moments showcasing Sondheim’s almost supernatural connection to music, lyric, rhythm and wordplay: here is a wordsmith and musical mathematician at work outside of creation, but completely devoted to ensuring the immortal cast recording is done to pinpoint perfection. One incredible sequence depicts Sondheim’s meticulous skill at knowing exactly where actress Pamela Myers (who plays one of Bobby’s girlfriends) drops a single note in the delectable number “You Could Drive A Person Crazy”. Another is where Sondheim overlooks the insanely fast patter song “Getting Married Today”, and the image of him practically pulling his hair out and wiping his weary eyes while Broadway legend Elaine Stritch belts out “The Ladies Who Lunch” over and over again is priceless.  

Elaine Stritch is so much fun to watch throughout Pennebaker’s film, and at the same time she is a perfect example of an artist plagued with personal torment and completely disabled by the notion and suffocating stress of “not getting it quite right”. Her battle with hitting the right notes, getting the right personality across and managing the emotional nuances of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is something that every single dramatic performer (most notably those involved with musical theatre) simply has to watch: Stritch’s personal demons and long-time struggle with alcoholism somehow come across during her endless takes. 

Elaine Stritch

Pennebaker remembers:

I had known Elaine and in the end she came through, but she got very, very boozy throughout the performance. It was all done in one night and it was about four or five in the morning when we finished, it was a late night enterprise. Elaine was an alcoholic, she had drank all her life, and she would get alcohol wherever she could. She needed it, and that’s what it was -alcoholism quite simply – booze helped her get through performing.

This making-of film was set to be the first in a whole line of documentaries chronicling the formation of a musical’s soundtrack recording, however budget and audience appeal killed the idea. 

Pennebaker explains:

The problem is that when you’re dealing with a new musical there isn’t an audience for it, so it’s hard to get theatrical distribution for a film about the recording of an album based on the songs from a new musical. Also it can get very expensive to pay for the rights to use the songs.

But Company: Cast Recording was an extraordinarily positive and eye-opening moment in the career of this phenomenal documentary filmmaker. 

He says:

It was an amazing experience, there was a point where we had been told at the beginning that if we ever got in the way or ever hit a microphone where there was some kind of objectionable sound we would be thrown right out. I liked that energy, that aspect of the filming, to make sure we were stealthy enough just observing. I remember when I was filming Elaine I was very nervous about hitting a mic, but luckily I didn’t. Also, Steve is just amazing. It’s so great when he picks up on the G that the actress misses in “Another Hundred People”, I mean he’s such an incredible musician and I’ve always loved that about him. I saw Company on stage and I was actually quite nervous as to getting my head around how we were going to film what we filmed and get the story of the play across, but then when we decided to just film the recordings of the songs, that actually fed a narrative of sorts. Also, it helped that the cast were all relatively young and just starting out. That was a massive advantage in that we could almost do anything we really wanted. I used to go to a lot of stuff on Broadway and I was raised on Broadway by my mother. I loved plays because a lot of them taught me what entertainment could be, that it could say something, that it could be an insight into the times.

Actress/singer Elaine Stritch talks with producer Hal Prince

The recording was produced by legendary musical theatre director and producer Hal Prince, a long-time collaborator of Sondheim’s. The brilliant, inspired Prince would develop the nostalgia turned sour in Follies, the anxiety and romantic mania in A Little Night Music, he would embrace Sondheim’s commentary on America celebrating its problematic bicentenary with Pacific Overtures and revel in Gothic horror and parlour room gore with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Outside of his works with Sondheim, Prince would bring to life some of the most successful stage musicals by directing them with complexity, a penchant for detail and thorough insight and an intense injection of revolutionary aesthete. He would bring Brechtian cynicism to Evita and silent movie melodrama to Phantom of the Opera – two blockbuster musicals from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. But here with Company, and as seen in Pennebaker’s film that chronicles the recording of the cast recording, Prince is allowed to get inside the material and through conversations with Sondheim, Stritch and others, we see him reign in the ideas from the artists, and being one himself he is able to provide a mutual meeting place where artistic intention and integrity meets with business and commerce and never for one second is jeopardized.