D. A. Pennebaker’s 1970 film Original Cast Album: “Company” is a documentary about work. Technically, it’s more specific than that—it’s a documentary about artists at work, and thus part of a category with a long and honorable history, including within the director’s own résumé,
which encompasses everything from the epochal Bob Dylan portrait Dont Look Back (1967) to the delightful and insightful backstage doc Moon over Broadway (1997, codirected with Chris Hegedus). But more than in either of those films—and more than in almost any movie belonging to the genre—the emphasis here is on the task at hand: the effort, the frustration, the exhaustion, the struggle up the hill in the service of perfecting something that we can still rejoice in and argue about today. That is what the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, this movie’s main character and repository of stress, achieved with Company—and it’s also what Pennebaker, an eclectic documentarian who was at his very best when he followed his passionate curiosity about how things get made, did with the small masterpiece he crafted about the creation of the show’s cast album.
“Art isn’t easy,” Sondheim warned years later (by which time it had, in fact, gotten a little easier for him), in Sunday in the Park with George’s “Putting It Together.” That’s especially true when, as that song also says, “every minor detail is a major decision.” By the time Pennebaker rolled his cameras, most of the truly major decisions about Company had been made. Sondheim’s game-changing musical about Bobby (a.k.a. Robby, a.k.a. Robbo, a.k.a. “Robert, darling”), an emotionally stalled single man wandering through some one-night stands, weaving in and out of the orbits of “those good and crazy people, my married friends,” and wondering if he’ll ever be capable of a lasting connection with another human being—the proof, he comes to believe, of being alive—had already been written and composed and cast and directed and launched on Broadway. When the show opened in April 1970, the New York Times characterized the reviews as “mixed, but the ones that were favorable were violently favorable, the kind of notices that send people running to stand in line at the box office.” Company would go on to be nominated for a then-record-breaking fourteen Tonys and win five of them, including for best musical, best score, and best lyrics.
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