In “Recording the Producers: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks”, Nathan Lane quips that the reason these types of documentaries exist are because filmmakers want to capture another Elaine Stritch moment, that point where an actor, actress, singer, etc. tries to push him or herself as hard as they can, even when exhaustion has set in a few hours prior. They want that song to be perfect, that role to be remembered. But begrudgingly, they let it go, leaving it as fodder for another day. In the last act of “Original Cast Album: Company” (a documentary that can indeed be split into acts, even with a 53 minute running time, despite what seems like fairly innocuous subject matter), Stritch tries damn hard to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” the way it should be heard. For Stephen Sondheim, nearing the end of an 18-hour recording session, he knows what Stritch is trying to avoid. He sees that she’s had it for that day, and doesn’t want to see his song tumble into the waste bin on account of her trying to avoid the inevitable.
That’s the main drama of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary. How far do you push yourself before you absolutely need to stop? And do you even know when you’ve reached your limit? Pennebaker captured those frustrated moments in 1970 with a portable 16mm camera and sound system that he invented, bringing with him the right seven people to film and record the session right along with him. This all happened in one day and night. No stopping. No continuing the next day. Dean Jones, Barbara Barrie, Elaine Stritch, George Coe and other actors and actresses were there to record the songs of the Broadway musical “Company” for posterity. Times have changed, however. In “Company”, Dean Jones bursts out with “Being Alive”, a song about his character’s inability to foster a personal romantic relationship with someone and his desire to do just that. The camera, hand-held naturally and fortunately, gets so close to Jones that you can literally see the caps on a few of his back teeth. All the performers are situated in front of the orchestra, behind microphones, open to all that happens. “Recording the Producers” is comparatively different. The orchestra is still there, though union hours are now attached that prevents anyone from reaching the 18 hours that the “Company” cast did in 1970. And the singers and actors are in glass booths now, just without a sign to say, “Please do not touch the talent.”
Watching “Company”, there is such strong emotion, not only in what’s going on, but in the songs themselves. One actress is intimidated at this being the “end all and the be all” of her song, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, performed with two other women. Sondheim listens closely to make sure his songs are sung in the way they should be and corrects a performer on her pronunciation of, “Bobby baby bubbie….” The reason that “Recording the Producers” is so taxing is not only because of the extensive interviews which add nothing that we don’t already know, but because it doesn’t have that kind of drama that could be born out of an 18 hour session. The people perform, they go home, and the next day they come back. Big deal. Furthermore, a record producer like Thomas Z. Shepard could never be found on camera again, only if you’re in that type of industry that affords you contact with record producers of cast albums. Shepard knows what needs to be said and he says it. He’s got that perfect New York personality that defines his ways. Work has to be done and he’ll do it, but he also revels in something wonderfully done, such as when the harmony in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is tip-top and he exclaims, “I’ve never heard it sung like this before. This is wonderful!” There’s an immense comparison when he’s standing next to a technician sitting down and working at the controls. This technician’s supposedly lived good years throughout his life and just wants to get the job done. He has that face of hardened experience, expressly well known by way of the beginning in which he is the first person seen on screen. He just does what he does.
It’s also the other songs that bring Sondheim’s talents to terrific light. He can write classy fluff such as, indeed, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and then pen something as emotionally intense as “Another Hundred People”, a perfect treatise on city life and how busy people are in being busy and vain. It’s in watching these actors perform these songs that’s the real joy. Stritch carries her comedic instincts proudly over her head with “Little Things You Do Together”, and the aforementioned “Ladies Who Lunch” has become legend not only on the basis of what happens to her at the end of “Original Cast Album: Company”, but also simply as a song, sung by her. She feels contempt, amusement, curiosity, and frustration all at the same time and picks it apart splendidly.
Leave it to Pennebaker to hit viewers with documentaries full of entertainment value and absorbing drama. And also leave it to him to participate in a commentary track that pairs him not only with Stritch (those parts were recorded in Sag Harbor, New York at her home), but with the original show’s director, Harold Prince who has a lot to say about the process of making this musical work. First a set of seven one-act plays by George Furst, Prince massaged it into a form in which Sondheim was welcome to insert songs and indeed he did. All legends. One story in particular, namely that of Stritch’s exhaustion which led her to yell strikingly at her recording before leaving in defeat, is told two different ways. Prince relates that they had a tub of wine in the booth and Stritch was a bit tipsy before singing the song, and Stritch separately recalls having three or four glasses of champagne because she was nervous. She’s not vehement about it or dead set in disproving it. Like “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” showed, sometimes it’s good to go back to who you were all those decades go and look at yourself from the perspective of being older and even more wiser. This track gives everything you could possibly want to know about the recording of the album, including Dean Jones being replaced by Larry Kert after the opening night, at his request due to a disintegrating marriage and the shock of being in New York. Jones, according to Harold Prince, told him in a letter that Los Angeles felt like a much quieter place after returning from there. A smartly edited photo gallery, accompanied by “Have I Got a Girl for You”, shows what the stage production looked like, especially valuable for young, smooth youth like myself who were not even a dirty thought in parental minds. “Original Cast Album: Company” at least brings forth the feel of the songs, if not the stage production itself and that’s alright. This is what documentaries are for and in that sense, this is a good one to question yourself. How far would you go in a day for your own art?