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Sondheim’s ‘Company’ Comes Calling--22 Years Later : Film: Today’s release of the 1970 ‘Original Cast Album’ captures on laser disc and video the performers’ struggles.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elaine Stritch looks tired. And stressed-- very stressed.

It’s past 4 a.m. in a Columbia Records recording studio, and the musical theater star has just finished her fourth or fifth unsuccessful attempt to record the Stephen Sondheim song “The Ladies Who Lunch.” In the control room, Sondheim, a weary glaze in his eyes, slowly shakes his head from side to side.

Stritch listens to the playback, her face tensing with frustration, stares up at the monitor speaker and finally lets out a long, pained cathartic roar: “Oh, shut up!”

This remarkable moment is preserved in a new laser disc and videocassette, “Original Cast Album: Company,” filmed by renowned cinema verite film director D. A. Pennebaker at the May 3, 1970, recording session and scheduled for release today. It is the first in a planned series of musical theater-related productions from RCA Victor Video.

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Incredibly, it has taken more than two decades for the film to reach the broad popular market. This despite the fact that “Company” was a watershed production for Sondheim--a theater work that won six Tony Awards and established the composer-lyricist as Broadway’s preeminent talent. Within the 10 years after “Company” opened, Sondheim created music and lyrics for “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd.”

The “Company” cast was an all-star list of established and emerging musical comedy performers: Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Beth Howland, Charles Kimbrough, Pam Myers and Donna McKechnie, with choreography by Michael Bennett and direction by Harold Prince.

Why has it taken so long for “Original Cast Album: Company"--a film that, by its very absence, began to acquire a near legendary reputation--to be released?

Shot as part of a failed TV project, the film has been available briefly from time to time, in other, limited formats. It was shown last year on cable TV’s Learning Channel. The first showing was a theatrical version that debuted at the New York Film Festival in September, 1970.

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According to Craig Zadan, the video’s executive producer (and Sondheim biographer), interest was so strong that “mobs of outraged theatergoers were turned away after waiting in line for several hours. Festival officials panicked, the police riot squad was summoned and a second showing had to be scheduled.”

Last year, the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theatre screened it for a few weeks. “And that was it,” says Zadan. “For the most part, it’s simply been out of circulation for 22 years.”

The real distribution plan originally was aimed at television syndication.

The idea of doing an in-the-studio film documentary during the cast recording was that of film producer Daniel Melnick, who at the time was working for the late David Susskind’s Talent Associates.

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“The way it got started was that Melnick went to Eastern Airlines and got a commitment for financing,” explains Zadan. “But a few days before the recording session, all the money was pulled out, abruptly.

“It seems that the Eastern people had finally gotten around to seeing the show and were very disturbed about a number called ‘Barcelona,’ in which Susan Browning, as an airline stewardess, sleeps with Robert, the Dean Jones character. They said they were very upset, not because the airline stewardess slept with him, but because she missed her flight. And that was the end of their financing.”

Melnick managed to persuade Chrysler-Plymouth to take over sponsorship, almost literally at the last minute.

“When I first got together with Melnick and the others,” recalls Pennebaker, “they seemed to think we’d all make a lot of money out of making a TV series of these things. But I wasn’t so sure about that. I’m not too certain about the value of doing any more than one of anything .”

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Pennebaker’s instincts were accurate. “Original Cast Album: Company” turned out to be one of a kind. The project quickly disappeared from view. “Of course it did,” adds Pennebaker. “You can’t just go out and expect to tear these things off.”

It has taken a great deal of legwork by Zadan and Pennebaker’s chief administrative officer (and son) Fraze Pennebaker to bring the project to fruition.

“The funny thing is when I contacted them,” says Zadan, “the Pennebakers had the same thing in mind and had been working on getting releases from the various participants. So I called RCA because I knew they are now the premier cast album recording label, and they have a great deal of Sondheim catalogue. They thought that the idea of starting a line of theater videos was a good idea, so we went forward, creating a sort of marketing marriage between RCA and Pennebaker.

“But the real clincher was that Sondheim loved the idea, because he’s always been into the educational aspects of the theater. He thought it would be terrific to get the video to the theater departments of colleges and high schools to demonstrate not just how a cast album is done, but to show some of the detail of the score itself.”

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RCA’s new video version has been made from a newly struck print and includes carefully upgraded stereo sound. Zadan’s only disappointment has been the impossibility of adding some of the original outtakes.

“Unfortunately,” he explains, “all the footage that was not used in 1970 was sent to Talent Associates, which of course is out of business. The footage, if it survived at all, has disappeared.”

What remains is an amazing display of music in the making. In the long run, original cast albums are all that remain of some of the theater’s most stirring musical moments. The stresses and strains inherent in capturing those moments--usually in a tense, demanding recording session held the first free day after the opening--has never before been illustrated in such penetrating fashion.

For Stritch, her struggle with “The Ladies Who Lunch” still resonates as a powerful memory.

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“The only thing that was on my mind was that I just couldn’t get that damned song right,” says Stritch. “It’s such a hard number to do in a recording session--to get the full meaning of those lyrics across. You can’t come on that strong, as you always tend to do when you’re tired. And I was tired. I was exhausted.

“I looked like Margaret Rutherford doing the life story of Judy Garland.”

Pennebaker suspected, before he began shooting, that Stritch might provide some of the fireworks. “I’m always surprised by what I get,” he says. “But I kind of knew that Elaine was gonna be the hit. That’s her nature.”

Pennebaker’s instincts have a long track record of dependability. Considered one of the originators of cinema verite , he was responsible for the now epic footage of Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back” and Janis Joplin (among many others) in “Monterey Pop.”

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His approach to “Company” was typical of the way he works: Place three cameramen in an arena of action and try to capture anything that appears intriguing.

A good part of the appeal of “Original Cast Album: Company” lies in the fact that Pennebaker has incorporated so many riveting real-life scenes among the tense mechanics of the recording process. Stritch’s long, harrowing and eventually transcendent encounter with “The Ladies Who Lunch” is the high point of the video.

Almost as telling, if less overtly theatrical, is the Dean Jones reading of “Being Alive.” A few weeks later, the tensions so apparent on his face in the video eventually drove him to leave the show.

“It was very difficult,” Jones recalls. “There I was, going through a painful divorce, being on the phone with my two daughters every day trying to reassure them and going on stage at night to deal with the brittle, destructive relationships in the play. It finally got to the point where I just couldn’t keep going over the same material at night that I was experiencing during the day. It was like enough already, and I guess you can see that in my eyes when I’m singing ‘Being Alive.’ ”

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Most of the cast members have held on to treasured versions dubbed from the syndication run or, in Jones’ case, a scratchy, pirated release in a plain wrapper picked up somewhere in the South of France.

As Browning aptly puts it between takes of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”: “This is so definitive. It’s the end-all and the be-all of this song. God! It could drive a person crazy!”


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