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Soundtracking: Documentary Now! - "Original Cast Album: Co-op"

by Chris Feil

In the recent weeks of losing both Hal Prince and D.A. Pennebaker, my mind naturally went to Original Cast Album: Company. As Pennebaker’s enduring documentary short detailing the backstage business of recording one of Prince’s peak creations, it provides moments worth obsessing over for Broadway obsessives and otherwise. So it feels serendipitously timed to celebrate them both that Documentary Now! arrived at the film in its most recent season. After all, sometimes the greatest tribute is parody.

Documentary Now!’s “Original Cast Album: Co-op” episode shows its affection for the original in how keenly it observes both Pennebaker’s details and the musical’s idiosyncrasies. Rehearsals in the recording studio have a hilarious tension due to the volatility of John Mulaney’s Sonheim stand-in composer, alternating from over-it reserve to cutting feedback to the likes of the unimpeachable Renée Elise Goldsberry. Responsibility is deferred to the studio producer played by Taren Killam, but really he just aches to be in on the musical theatre fun. Pennebaker’s verite style accentuates the punchlines, with Sondheimian cadences overcomplicating the musicality.

But the love of musical theatre, and especially Company, undercuts all of the stylistic jabs. From South Park to Shrek, “Original Cast Album: Co-op” is another entry in a line of musical parodies that mocks and adores simultaneously. Company is a musical we often recontextualize because of its quite dated elements, and “Co-op” leans hard into those hyper-70s reference points, from the emergence of the co-op living developments to home aesthetics to the omnipresence of cocaine.

The episode is Emmy nominated for one of its original songs and its perhaps the most directly referential to the Company score: “Holiday Party (Cocaine Tonight)”. Here the marital jitters patter song “Not Getting Married Today” and its existential crisis is twisted into more interpersonal anxieties. With Tony nominee Alex Brightman curbing his social anxieties with some cocaine bumps, the song directly mirrors Sondheim’s original structure while the manic drug jokes make fun of the song’s iconically speedy meter.

However, in terms of iconography for Company, “Co-op”’s most genius moments come from one of the musical’s signature songs and Pennebaker’s most charged sequence: a revamp of Elaine Stritch recording “The Ladies Who Lunch”. Paula Pell takes on Stritch’s bucket-hatted legend, summoning Stritch’s exhausted ego and nerves in a way that is hilarious but not at the expense of the performer. The Broadway production was at the height of Stritch’s alcoholism, and what Pennebaker captured in the moment was a fascinating and essential look at addiction, creative process, and the cannibalistic neuroses of performers.

“Co-op” lovingly captures the meta moment of watching an alcoholic Stritch fail at booze-soaked “The Ladies Who Lunch” by giving Pell something intentionally reflective: her singer collapses through “I Gotta Go” and inches closer to fleeing the scene with every wrong note. Again, she is given an opportunity to redeem herself on the next day, making us feel both the triumph of Stritch and the original musical itself.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (5)

Love 'Company,' love this episode, love this commentary of it. It may sound dim of me, but I hadn't actually put two and two together and realized the cocaine references in "Holiday Party" were meant to explain the tempo.

Thanks, Chris!

August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

The song I got most stuck in my head was "Going Up", which is maybe the least directly referential but also perfectly in line with the Broadway-isms of really committing to a dubious metaphor and singing joyously about nothing in particular.

August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

It is worth noting that the soundtrack for this episode- featuring uncut versions of the songs- is available now on Spotify and iTunes. Proceeds are going to Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS.

August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

i've been worried that after losing pennebaker and prince in quick succession, this film was going to jinx sondheim under the rule of three

...and the brown and the beige and the brown and the beige and the broooooown

August 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

"Documentary Now" is very underrated! It should win all Emmys it was eligible for, especially Cate Blanchett for guest actress who wasn't even nominated!!!

August 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTheDrMistery

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