Elaine Stritch relives the drama in D.A. Pennebaker's seminal theater docu 'Original Cast Album'

By Steve Daly
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Stephen Sondheim, who’d written the words and music, was clearly nervous. The record producer, Thomas Z. Shepard, was downright rude. And as the cast of the landmark 1970 Broadway musical Company soldiered through a grueling, 18 1/2-hour recording session to get the show’s tongue-twister songs down on tape for posterity, one performer — Elaine Stritch — came apart at the seams.

In a mixed blessing for Stritch, documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was there to capture the torturous marathon as a TV special. His warts-and-all feat of voyeurism, Original Cast Album: Company!, has been reissued by Docurama on DVD ($29.95) and VHS ($24.95) — and three decades after first airing it’s still one of the most intimate portraits of theatrical creation ever caught on film.

For her part, Stritch still marvels at how Pennebaker snuck in under everybody’s radar. ”They told us it was for a college or something,” says the 75-year-old stage veteran. ”It was underplayed to such a great extent, and Pennebaker did that for a reason. He didn’t want the subjects trying to look like Elizabeth Taylor.”

Of course, Stritch invokes Taylor as a synonym for glamour and poise. But as the belter strains in Cast Album to nail the song ”The Ladies Who Lunch,” a blistering takedown of wealthy Manhattan wives, she comes off more like Taylor fumbling at the Golden Globes podium. She botches take after take, screaming her way through the lyrics, until she yells at her own playback, ”Oh, shut up!” Then, in a follow-up session two days later, she nails it perfectly. It’s an astonishing portrait of a performer triumphing over her own exhaustion and insecurity.

”I cost them an awful lot of trouble and money,” Stritch says. ”But through no fault of mine. My heart was in the right place. I wasn’t misbehaving, I was trying to get it.” Watching her finally do so makes for a deeply satisfying showstopper.

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