There’s a scene in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Original Cast Album: Company” that unites all Elaine Stritch fans. Of course, younger audiences know her Emmy-winning turn as Jack Donaghy’s sharp-tongued mother in “30 Rock,” and Broadway fans will never forget her Tony-winning one woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” the film version of which incidentally united her with Pennebaker decades later.
But it is her increasingly desperate attempts to record the most famous number of her career, the 11 o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” that Pennebaker captured and edited so sensationally, that shows a rare peek behind the curtain at the ferocious talent at her most vulnerable.
Less Broadway-inclined cinephiles may be unfamiliar with “Original Cast Album: Company.” The documentary legend, who died over the weekend at the age of 94, was known as a groundbreaking figure in the evolution of documentary filmmaking, helming such seminal nonfiction films as “Monterey Pop,” “The War Room,” and “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back.”
In his rousing essay about the late filmmaker’s influence on the form, documentarian Robert Greene wrote that Pennebaker’s legacy “might best be defined by his shrewd understanding of the complexities of filming people.” This quality is exemplified in “Original Cast Album: Company,” which Greene cites as a masterpiece, calling it “a stripped-down homily to the act of people acting; the contradictory power of people playing themselves for his exacting nonfiction camera is the de facto subject of all of Pennebaker’s films.”
It’s also extremely funny. Pennebaker captures Sondheim’s eccentric perfectionism with a lovingly amused gaze, offering a rare glimpse of the notoriously private musical theater legend. (Broadway nerds worship Sondheim as much as documentary heads revered Pennebaker.) Giving a note to a young Donna McKechnie while recording “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a rare Sondheim bop, the composer is dissatisfied with her distinctly gentile pronunciation of the non-word lyric “boobie.” Sondheim and McKechnie practice the word tete-a-tete, bouncing the vowel back and forth like a manic game of verbal tennis. To the untrained ear, the difference is almost impossible to hear, and she’s singing in three-part harmony anyway; such is Sondheim’s precision.
Of course, for fans of one of Sondheim’s most popular musicals (rivaled only by “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”), the music is enough to make the film a rare gem. There’s nothing else quite like it in existence: The film was originally shot as a pilot for a continuing series of similar cast recordings. When the producers all got jobs working for MGM, the series was scrapped. Pennebaker’s 1970 film is all that remains. Recent years have delivered a few excellent Broadway documentaries: “Every Little Step” (2008), “Bathtubs Over Broadway” (2018), and “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” another Sondheim epic. All were welcome additions to the small subset of the genre, but Pennebaker’s contribution reigns supreme.
The piece de resistance, as previously mentioned, is Stritch’s late night recording session that quickly falls apart. Pennebaker shrewdly sets the stage for the epic meltdown, peppering the film with shots of the actress smoking and drinking between takes (a notorious alcoholic, Stritch got sober later in life), and feeding her tiny dog scraps from the table. The first sign of trouble comes when Sondheim suggests to the tiring diva, “I have a feeling we oughta take it down a half tone, just because it’s late.”
“Maybe if I took my hat off, I could do it,” Stritch jokes, fluffing her hair, as Sondheim casts her a skeptical look. A character actress of the highest caliber, Stritch’s strength was never her mellifluous vocalizations. But after 14 hours of recording, she is truly at a loss. As she muscles her way through her signature showstopper, Sondheim shakes his head and furrows his brow, nursing a cigarette. Muttering under his breath, the music producer Thomas Z. Shepard asks: “What the hell do you want me to do?” And she loses it on everyone in the room.
“That moment when I scream at myself frightened me more than anything in the documentary,” Stritch said in a later interview about the scene. “And it was so good of Penny to get it, because it tells a big story. You know, you’re so — you don’t like yourself. I’m so angry, and after doin’ all that, and having it not [be] good, was devastating.”
The film concludes with Stritch returning a few days later to sing over a previously recorded orchestral track, where she lays down what would become the definitive recording of one of the greatest songs in musical theater history. It’s a triumphant conclusion, and an unforgettable window into a very distinct creative process that has too rarely been captured on film.
Before he died, Pennebaker was in attendance at a New York screening of a “Documentary Now!” riff on the beloved film, which writers Seth Meyers and John Mulaney set in an apartment building and renamed “Original Cast Album: Co-op.” The filmmaker was pleased with the half-hour tribute, which featured Paula Pell as the Stritch role. When Mulaney said his dream was for Sondheim to see the episode, Pennebaker piped in from his seat in the audience. “That would be an interesting moment,” he said. “He’d like it too. I’m telling you, he’d love it.” But even that calculated spoof can’t begin to evoke the mesmerizing achievements of the real thing.