A Return to Company
New York magazine|August 16 - 29, 2021
Stephen Sondheim and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick revisit the making of the iconic cast album—and Elaine Stritch’s beautiful meltdown.
By Frank Rich

Hollywood has a long history of making beloved movies about the backstage machinations of Broadway. A short list would include films as various as Warner Bros.’ Depression-era fable 42nd Street, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and, at the head of the class, Joseph Mankiewicz’s acid-tinged valentine to Broadway’s postwar golden age, All About Eve. They were mostly made in Los Angeles. But some of the best films about the Broadway theater are documentaries made in New York and not nearly as well known as they should be, in part because they have been only sporadically available (if at all) on commercial video. They were the work of D.A. Pennebaker, the groundbreaking filmmaker who died at 94 in 2019 and whose eclectic subjects spanned from Bob Dylan in the late ’60s (Don’t Look Back) to the first Bill Clinton presidential campaign (The War Room).

Two of his exemplary Broadway films, Jane (1962) and Moon Over Broadway (1997, co-directed with Chris Hegedus), chronicle productions from their hopeful geneses to their disillusioning opening nights. They have been overshadowed by Original Cast Album: Company (1970), Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall account of the marathon making of the Columbia recording of the musical that rebooted Stephen Sondheim’s career six years after his previous Broadway musical as composer-lyricist, Anyone Can Whistle, had flamed out in a week. Despite often falling out-of-print over the past half-century, this 53-minute film has survived as a semi-underground classic and as recently as 2019 inspired a Documentary Now! parody, spearheaded by John Mulaney. This month, at long last, our indispensable curator of classic cinema, the Criterion Collection, is reissuing the Pennebaker original in a sumptuous restoration.

For so compact a film, it is full of finely etched portraits of the characters at hand, especially the young Sondheim and the original ensemble cast, led by Dean Jones as Bobby, a Manhattan bachelor whose many married friends alternately press him to join their ranks of the semi-happily wed and offer graphic examples of why he had better look hard before he leaps.

The most sardonic of those friends, of course, is played by Elaine Stritch, whose travails while recording her big number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” are the dramatic highlight of the documentary and a big part of why the film and Stritch herself have endured as objects of cult devotion. At the time Stritch opened in Company, her career had been flagging; her two star turns in Broadway musicals, both in flops, were a decade behind her, and her alcoholism was no secret. She left the show a year into its 20-month Broadway run, and it would be more or less a quarter-century before the late-in-life renaissance that led to her steady employment in the theater, film, television, and cabaret. It’s the long afterlife of Pennebaker’s enduring portrayal of her breakdown on-camera in the wee hours that kept the memory of her vital spark alive during her many dark years. (After her comeback, he would co-direct a film adaptation of her one-woman stage show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in 2002.)

I interviewed Sondheim and Jonathan Tunick, the brilliant orchestrator who collaborated on Company and most of the Sondheim classics to follow it, for a video that accompanies the rerelease of the documentary. Three Sondheim shows in New York were among those shuttered by covid: the recently opened Ivo van Hove revival of West Side Story; the CSC revival of Assassins then in preproduction; and the new revival of Company, just starting previews on Broadway, in which, as conceived by the British director Marianne Elliott, Bobby is repurposed as a female Bobbie. (Unlike Bobby, she also has a biological clock to contend with as she weighs the joys and perils of marriage on her 35th birthday.) Company and Assassins are now on the verge of reopening, the virus willing.

My own personal history with Sondheim began roughly when Company did. As a drama critic for my college newspaper, I had seen its first public performance, in its pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, in the spring of 1970. The show’s epic final number, “Being Alive,” so powerfully delivered by Jones, had yet to be written. Even now, having seen countless revivals since, including the gender-reversed version in its London debut nearly three years ago, I still remember the high I experienced at that first viewing in Boston: the jangling pulse and infinite variety of the score and lyrics; the daring refusal of Furth’s book to offer any narrative that might be called a plot; the aggressive pitch of producer-director Hal Prince and the choreographer Michael Bennett’s staging; the starkMies van der Rohe architecture of Boris Aronson’s set. Despite being confined to a windowless recording studio, Pennebaker’s film is remarkably evocative of the whole enterprise.

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