I Like Musical Theater and My Wife Doesn’t Understand Me

For no particular reason other than it’s the first thumbnail I saw on the screen, the first thing I watched when we got a subscription to the Criterion Channel was the Original Cast Recording Documentary of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. I’m generally not into “making of” documentary content (I call them “creative procedurals”, and the term is not intended to be flattering), but this one looked intriguing. A document of recording a cast performance in a vintage studio of that era is a rare thing. So I clicked on the thumbnail and became absorbed.

My wife came into the room beaming. “Did you set up the account? Can we watch the Criterion Channel now?” 

I said we were now indeed dialed in, and told her what I was watching. When the words “broadway musical” hit her ears there was a beat or two of pause before her eyes glazed over and the corners of her mouth began to turn up into a queasy sneer. After an eternity, with her eyes still staring unseeing into the living room nothingness, the gavel of her discontent came down to break the silence with a dissenting opinion:

“Oh. Musical.” 

“I know, you don’t like musicals, you think they’re stupid, I get it, but I’m kind of into it and it’s not even an hour so maybe we can watch something else together later?” 

She shrugged. “Ok”. Turned to leave. But as soon as she started to walk away the trio of Donna McKechnie, Susan Browning, and Pamela Myers started doot doot dooting their way through You Could Drive A Person Crazy and she had to turn and watch in morbid fascination. After a minute she was laughing. Another minute or so and she was sitting beside me with snacks and holding her calls. 

“See? If you just embrace the spirit of the thing it’s not so bad.” 

The documentary of recording Sondheim’s Company is at once a time capsule of Broadway, core sample of the process of professional creatives, and reality programming decades ahead of the cultural curve. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker (maker of the classic Bob Dylan 1965 tour documentary Don’t Look Back), Company displays a style that seems loose and slapdash, masking masterful editing that keeps things humming along nicely. The film even has the capability of turning a few people on to musical theater – people like my significant other, who later enthusiastically requested a viewing of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum after being softened up by this short but sweet documentary. 

There’s even a bit of real drama at the end of the film when, after a long day of singing and too many surreptitious vodka shots, Elaine Stritch can’t manage a decent take of ‘Ladies Who Lunch‘. She sounds like shit and she knows it, everyone in the control booth knows it, and there’s a roomful of New York’s finest session players and orchestra members all getting 2x union scale and the studio turns into a pumpkin the next day and, well, she just has to get a good take in the can or the cast recording contract with Columbia Records is SNAFU and if the music director can’t deliver the whole thing on deadline the lawyers get involved and she’ll probably never work on Broadway again and I think I will not spoil the ending so you will just have to watch it yourself to see how it all turns out. 

At the end when the credits started to roll…

“Well, was it that bad? What did you think?” 

“Can we watch it from the beginning?”