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Documentary Now’s “Co-Op” Puts the Focus on an Overlooked Classic

Elaine Stritch in Original Cast Album: Company (left), Beck Bennett and John Mulaney in Documentary Now's "Co-Op" (right).
Elaine Stritch in Original Cast Album: Company (left), Taran Killam and John Mulaney in Documentary Now’s “Co-Op” (right). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Docurama/Leacock-Pennebaker and IFC.

Documentary Now pays homage to documentaries, but sometimes it revives them, too. D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company is more of a cult favorite than a canonical classic, and the fact that it’s been years since it was available via streaming or physical media has made it something close to samizdat. At a screening of Doc Now’s “Co-Op,” which riffs on Pennebaker’s pressurized account of an all-night recording session, Renée Elise Goldsberry, playing one of the episode’s Broadway belters, said Original Cast Album was “one of those things that our tribe celebrates”—then admitted that she’d only seen clips on YouTube.

Original Cast Album is duly revered among theater’s makers and fans for its intimate look at the creation of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, the show that firmly established his place in the musical theater pantheon. It’s not exactly a making-of, since the show was, by that point, already made, but it’s fascinating to see Sondheim take the singers aside to correct the tiny imperfections—the F sharp that has crept up to an A flat, the vowel sound in a particular Yiddishism—that have crept in over weeks of live performance. Theater exists only for an instant, but the recording, as the participants are reminded more than once, is for posterity. If you know Company’s recording at all, it’s fascinating to watch the singers creep towards the version you’re already familiar with, the moment when a song clicks over from almost there to just right.

The path, needless to say—and fortunately for Pennebaker and co.—is not always a smooth one. With Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, Pennebaker had already established himself as a superlative chronicler of musical performance, but here he’s often focused on the tales that didn’t quite make it, especially as the session grinds on into the early morning hours and tempers wear thin. The movie’s climax is Elaine Stritch’s attempt to nail “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a wrenching solo about the spiritual death of a socialite that she only begins after the rest of the cast has left for the night. Her voice is already rough from hours of singing, and she’s desperate to do the song justice, but the harder she pushes, the more strained it sounds.

Eventually, sound engineer Thomas Z. Shephard advises her to “Try it again from the top—sung,” which may be the most devastating note in the entire history of notes. (Shephard showed up to another screening of “Co-Op” last week with much of the show’s surviving cast, and made clear he doesn’t see it as his finest moment.) It’s a truly astonishing sequence—one of the greatest in nonfiction cinema, really—and it’s so riveting to watch Stritch pour her heart out that you’re baffled to see Sondheim with his head in his hands, trying to find a way to tell Stritch she’s not getting it without making her strain even harder. But when they finally break and return the next day, you can hear the nuance that’s been missing, and appreciate the distinction between what works on screen and what works on a record.

Documentary Now’s “Ladies Who Lunch” can’t measure up to its inspiration, and it doesn’t really try: Instead of being desperate to live up to an iconic song, Paula Pell’s Stritch equivalent just wants to get to a doctor’s appointment, and doesn’t mind tanking a take to get out the door more quickly. But if you’re able to watch “Co-Op” and Company together—last week’s dual screening in New York will almost certainly not be the last, and the latter can be found online—it’s staggering how well the ersatz version mirrors the original, right down to the font in the opening titles. John Mulaney, who wrote the episode and stars as its Sondheimish composer, admits that in several cases, he wrote new lyrics to existing (if not especially well-known) Sondheim songs and then left it to composer Eli Bolin to come up with a new tune that didn’t sound like it was plagiarizing its source.* (When asked by the New York Times what he thought of the episode’s songs, Sondheim displayed the same instinct for low-key laceration he demonstrates in Original Cast Album: “Well, I would have to listen again. The lyrics are crowded.”)

There’s a dash of melancholy in “Co-Op,” borrowed from the fate of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where the cast members have to record the album right after they’re told the show has been closed. But the episode is more purely parodic, often dazzlingly so. The songs are genuinely catchy while also being hilariously overburdened with twisted metaphors—see Goldsberry’s “My Home Court,” which will have you singing “the brown and the beige and the brown and the beige” for weeks—and the cast is full of Broadway ringers, including Sondheim veteran Richard Kind, whose character nearly goes into cardiac arrest trying to make it through a fast-paced number without gasping for breath. Good as it is, though, the greatest achievement of “Co-Op” might be bringing Original Cast Album: Company back into the word. It’s been away too long.

Correction, Feb. 27, 2019: This post originally misspelled composer Eli Bolin’s last name.

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