Film Review: Original Cast Album: Company

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Director: D.A. Pennebaker

As the original cast gather in the studio to record the opening number of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, one member of the ensemble is still holding his cigarette as he joins his colleagues to sing the title song. This is the 1970s, and D.A. Pennebaker was given 24 hours of behind-the-scenes access to create his seminal theatre documentary Original Cast Album: Company now given a 4K restoration and released on Blu-ray with an abundance of engaging extras, commentaries and reflections.

It is always a joy to listen to one of Sondheim and George Furth’s most arresting scores, and the music is the absolute centre of Pennebaker’s film. The recording of individual songs are shown in full, sometimes in repetition as the company are pushed to find the perfect take, clearly with no time to finish their cigarettes. With renewed interest in Company following Marianne Elliott’s rather extraordinary gender-switched production which is finally heading for a Broadway transfer following a pandemic delay, there is no better time to revisit the origins of this show and the personalities who inhabited it all for the first time.

This warts-and-all insight into the process of formulating, refining and producing a cast album is both fascinating and oddly compelling. Lacking a specific narrative arc, Pennebaker just immerses his camera in the unfolding dramas as singers who performed the show on Broadway every day struggle to meet the demands of the music with the composer and producer in the room. With Sondheim himself policing every note for rogue amendments that change his vision, we are shown the growing exhaustion as multiple takes affect the performers’ motivation.

One of the great moments includes Elaine Stritch straining to complete a version of The Ladies Who Lunch in the early hours of the morning. And while the Extras suggest she played to camera, it provides a satisfying culmination to the brewing drama in the room as the feedback is increasingly blunt. Being told the latest take was ‘flaccid’, Sondheim grasps his head in despair. It is a strong moment in which Original Cast Album: Company can reflect on the self-critical pressure placed on the performers in this section of the film.

At only 50-minutes this is a short film but filled with insightful content that stands-up well today. Pennebaker tracks the drama around the room so well, focusing tightly on the actor’s faces as they twist themselves into Sondheim’s complex rhythmical patterns. He shows the tightly packed space filled with musicians, singers and interested parties, while noting the chasm between performing on stage and trying to create a definite cast recording in a windowless pressure-cooker.

Accompanying this 4K restoration, there are newly recorded reflections on the film and the music from Sondheim, Stritch, Pennebaker and legendary producer Harold Prince as well as a mockumentary tribute with cast discussion. The film itself exists with minimal context; then as now, the audience is just dropped into the film while the Extras offer very little reflection on the genesis of Company as a musical since this documentary. But Pennebaker set the standard for theatrical filmmaking and with the pandemic generating renewed interest in how productions are made, this Blu-ray release is very timely.

Original Cast Album: Company is available now on Blu-Ray.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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