Home Video Hovel: Original Cast Album: Company, by David Bax
Honestly, I guess I’d never really thought about it. I mean, I’m not that big a Broadway guy. But I have to admit it took me a few minutes to get over the realization, brought on by my first viewing of D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, that albums of Broadway shows are not just live recordings taken straight from the board during a performance. It seems dishonest or fraudulent somehow that what you’re listening to and singing along with is the result of what essentially amounts to promotional work on the part of the cast. I say all this to make it clear that I’m not exactly the target audience for this film. So when I tell you I loved it, it should mean something.
Stephen Sondheim is maybe the biggest name in the history of musical theater. Even I know that. But, as a cinephile, I’ve never gotten the chance to experience the full power of his work in that medium. There’s never really been a good movie made from a musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics (West Side Story and Gypsy are both great but he solely provided lyrics). Original Cast Album: Company–which is pretty much only about his work and not the play around it–goes a long way toward correcting that wrong.
Some opening text clues us in to the movie’s origin as a test pilot for a television series documenting the recordings of various cast albums. This ended up being the only one ever made but, lucky for us, it’s perfect. It’s mostly a mix between a workplace documentary and a hang-out movie until Elaine Stritch provides some conflict to goose the last stretch, having to do multiple takes of a crucial song.
If Sondheim, Stritch and, uh, company provide the aural engagement, it’s Pennebaker’s visual acumen that organizes the arcane chaos of recording a cast album and makes it legible. His camera replicates the eye’s ability to go from wide shot to insert in a single motion. A fly on the wall documentarian like Pennebaker doesn’t “direct” in the sense that a fiction filmmaker does. Instead, it’s us he’s directing. He guides us and illuminates the crucial moments we might not have otherwise seen. Original Cast Album: Company is no replacement for seeing the musical itself. But then seeing the musical wouldn’t be a replacement for watching this film.
According to the accompanying booklet, Criterion’s transfer comes from a new scan of the original 16mm reversal film as well, in the case of the main titles, a 35mm blowup. Dirt removal and other cleanup was done by MTI, who have proven themselves very good at this sort of thing. There’s also clearly a guiding intelligence to the overall restoration, evidence that decisions were made based on fidelity to the film in its original version and not to pursuing the bleeding edge of technology. Basically, I mean that there are some less than crisp images because that’s the nature of Pennebaker making this kind of a film with this kind of equipment.
Special features include new commentary by Sondheim; an existing commentary by Pennebaker, Stritch and director Harold Prince; a new conversation with Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and Frank Rich; a new interview with Tunick; audio from old interviews with Stritch and Prince; the Documentary Now! episode that parodies the film as well as a cast and crew reunion of same; and an essay by Mark Harris.