“This doesn’t have the tension it ought to have. It’s just flaccid.” This is one of the most memorable lines from the acclaimed and historic 1970 documentary, Original Cast Album: Company, which made a triumphant return to the screen during the third entry in Pure Nonfiction at IFC Center’s Winter 2019 Season. The night included a spectacular double bill, with the second act featuring a new episode from the IFC series Documentary Now! titled Original Cast Album: Co-op, a hilarious spoof on the original film by D.A. Pennebaker.
Both entries cover the recording of an original cast album of a Broadway show in a New York studio well into the early morning hours. With lines like “Nobody can sing an A soft” and “It was an F sharp and it gradually became an A,” composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is a towering presence in the original film. John Mulaney plays Simon Sawyer, a priceless sendup of Sondheim, spouting insults like “You’ve been singing it wrong for three weeks” and forcefully characterizing one of the numbers as a “bureaucratic co-op board fantasy fulfillment song.” The similarities do not end there - in both instances, the cast withers as the night wears on, a record producer pleads for more energy, and one particular actress is forced to sing until she no longer has any vocal strength.
It’s those exact situations that made Pennebaker’s original film ripe for parody by the creators of Documentary Now!. Mulaney compared the original to Saturday Night Live, saying “It’s 4 o'clock in the morning and you’re with very talented people that you love, and you all kind of want to kill each other, and you can’t make your face smile if you tried, but then the end product - sometimes - is great.” Co-creator Seth Meyers commented about having the original film on their radar since the first season, explaining “we did them about documentaries we loved that were timeless, and therefore hopefully the episodes we made will be as much fun for people to discover later on.” As Mulaney and Meyers expressed their love for Original Cast Album: Company, it was Pennebaker who remained the most moved, acknowledging that “To see something stick around… and when I see it like this, with the people who made it still willing to be with it, that really makes me feel good.”
Original Cast Album: Company can be found on DVD and various streaming platforms, and Original Cast Album: Co-op is featured as part of the third season of Documentary Now!, which begins on February 21st on IFC.