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'Original Cast Album: Company' provides a glimpse of Sondheim's perfectionism

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Musical theater fans are mourning the loss of Stephen Sondheim, who died Friday at the age of 91. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, points out that Sondheim's 1970 show "Company" transformed the Broadway musical by breaking away from predictable storylines and musical numbers with music and lyrics that conveyed complex characters with sharp wit and real feeling.

Now, more than a half a century later, a new London revival is in previews in New York and is opening on Broadway next month, breaking even more rules with a surprising gender swap. One of the most significant landmarks in the show's history was its original cast album and the making of that album that was the subject of a celebrated documentary. That film has been reissued by The Criterion Collection, along with some new material, which Lloyd says not only takes Sondheim's genius seriously, but also allows it to become the subject of hilarious satire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) We love you. Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company. No strings, good times, just chums, company. Late nights, quick bites, party games, deep talks, long walks, telephone calls, thoughts shared, souls bared, private names, all those photos up on the walls...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Before "Company" opened on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim was already well enough known for his lyrics to "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and his hit show "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" for his new musical to be included in a series of TV documentaries on the making of original cast recordings. The only one ever completed turned out to be D.A. Pennebaker's "Original Cast Album: 'Company.'" And it was a revelation. With its multilayer title - is Company a corporation? Someone coming to visit? A theatrical troupe? - the show is something entirely new, even for Sondheim.

On a bonus track for the new release of the documentary, he calls it a musical without a plot with songs that comment on rather than contribute to the action. Based on a series of short plays by George Furth, "Company" is a love letter - or love-hate letter - to New York, mostly a string of satirical encounters by the chronically single Bobby with his pro-marriage friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: 'COMPANY'")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) It's not so hard to be married.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) It's much the simplest of crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) It's not so hard to be married.

ELAINE STRITCH: (As Joanne, singing) I've done it three or four times.

TERI RALSTON: (As Jenny, singing) It's the people that you hate together.

BETH HOWLAND AND STEVE ELMORE: (As Amy and Paul, singing) Bait together.

JOHN CUNNINGHAM AND MERLE LOUISE: (As Peter and Susan, singing) Date together.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #4: (As characters, singing) That make marriage a joy.

GEORGE COE: (As David, singing) Things like using force together.

CHARLES BRASWELL: (As Larry, singing) Shouting till you're hoarse together.

STRITCH: (As Joanne, singing) Getting a divorce together.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #4: (As characters, singing) That make perfect relationships. Uh-huh, kiss, kiss. Mmm hmm.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: OK, that's good. I want to do it once more.

SCHWARTZ: Sondheim always wanted to be considered a composer, not just a lyricist. When I saw "Company" in its pre-Broadway Boston tryout, the music and lyrics struck me as most original when they were deliberately imitating familiar musical traditions and always with a Sondheim twist - the love duet played for comedy, the classic side-by-side friendship song turned into a top-hat-and-cane vaudeville routine. But Sondheim's satire always has the darkest undercurrents. His showstopper for Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, "The Ladies Who Lunch," mocks the smart set of women on the go. Sondheim calls them dinosaurs surviving the crunch. Everybody tries, Stritch sings; look into their eyes and you'll see what they know - everybody dies.

In Boston, Sondheim replaced Bobby's final song with "Being Alive," his answer to everybody dies. Remember Adam Driver's piercing performance of it in "Marriage Story"? In Pennebaker's documentary, we're riveted by Sondheim the perfectionist trying to make sure this cast album is the definitive document of his score. The recording session took over 18 hours.

But the most intense drama comes when Pennebaker zeroes in on the show's two musical focal points. Dean Jones, who played Bobby, had asked Elaine Stritch if he could record his climactic song earlier in the session, when his voice would be less tired. And Stritch, nervous about her own big number, agreed. Pennebaker practically pushes the camera down Jones' throat. After the last take of "Being Alive," the whole company gives Jones a round of applause. We feel his exhaustion.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: 'COMPANY'")

DEAN JONES: (As Bobby, singing) Somebody crowd me with love. Somebody push me to care. Somebody make me come through. I'll always be there, as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive, being alive, being alive.

SONDHEIM: Boy, the number is a killer. Would you like to hear it?

(APPLAUSE)

SCHWARTZ: When Stritch finally records "The Ladies Who Lunch," she's electrifying, very much the way I remember her doing it on stage. But something bothers Sondheim. He and the recording engineer complain that she's speaking the song more than singing it. The more retakes they request, the more frustrated Stritch gets. She knows she's not giving Sondheim what he wants. He decides to record the orchestra without her and have her come back the next day to sing over the pre-recorded track. It's a harrowing episode. We watch her leave the studio defeated. But when she returns in the morning refreshed, she nails it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: 'COMPANY'")

STRITCH: (As Joanne, singing) Another chance to disapprove. Another brilliant zinger. Another reason not to move. Another vodka singer. I'll drink to that. So here's to the girls on the go. Everybody tries. Look into their eyes, and you'll see what they know. Everybody dies. A toast to that invincible bunch, the dinosaurs surviving the crunch. Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch. Everybody rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right.

SONDHEIM: That's great. That's one hell of a good take. I want you to...

SCHWARTZ: Another special feature of the Criterion disc is a 2019 mockumentary about the cast recording of a fictional Broadway flop called "Co-Op," which has some remarkable similarities to "Company." Former "Saturday Night Live" writer and actress Paula Pell belting a song called "I Gotta Go" gives a lethal impersonation of Stritch. It even has its own making-of bonus track.

Both the "Company" and "Co-Op" documentaries, in their own way, take us behind the scenes and make us experience the real drama of putting on a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "SORRY-GRATEFUL")

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His latest book is "Who's On First? New And Selected Poems." He reviewed the Criterion Collection's reissue of "Original Cast Album: 'Company.'" It's streaming and on DVD.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "SORRY-GRATEFUL")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we begin our three-day tribute to Stephen Sondheim. We'll feature two long interviews from our archive with Sondheim and interviews with people who worked with him, including James Lapine, who wrote the books for the Sondheim musicals "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "SORRY-GRATEFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.