John Mulaney breaks down his Documentary Now! Sondheim spoof
John Mulaney… Broadway composer?
The comedian has helped spoof many classic films over the course of Documentary Now!’s three seasons, but the subject of Wednesday’s episode is particularly close to his musical-theater-loving heart.
He co-wrote and stars in “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a playful send-up of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 doc about Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Mulaney — a longtime Sondheim stan who made his own Broadway debut in 2016 with Oh, Hello — plays composer Simon Sawyer, and the episode (airing Wednesday on IFC) chronicles a demanding, all-night recording session for Sawyer’s new musical Co-Op, about a group of people living in the same apartment building. (“I’d imagine some people not familiar with New York apartment buildings could call it Coop, and that’s why the hyphen is such a big deal to us,” Mulaney explains.)
The result is a loving, meticulous parody of one of Broadway’s greatest, co-written by Seth Meyers and starring Taran Killam, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, and Paula Pell. Most of the episode draws from Pennebaker’s Company documentary (which is revered among musical theater nerds), but it also steals a key moment from the 2016 film Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about the making of Sondheim’s infamous flop Merrily We Roll Along. The casts of both Merrily We Roll Along and Co-Op learn that their show has closed early — but they still have to record the cast album.
Mulaney and Meyers co-wrote Co-Op’s songs by selecting actual Sondheim tracks, writing new lyrics, and then sending drafts off to composer Eli Bolin and orchestrator Mike Pettry, who set them to new music. “Those original demos also contain my dog barking in the background and, of course, cannot be released because they are total rip-offs of Mr. Sondheim’s work,” Mulaney says with a laugh. “They became real songs, new songs, but they started out as blatant copies. It was me, a dog, a rhyming dictionary, and an iPhone playing Sondheim melodies.”
One of Co-Op’s key songs is “I Gotta Go,” a climactic ballad sung by Pell that pays tribute to Company’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The Pennebaker documentary famously includes footage of Elaine Stritch struggling to nail her performance, and Co-Op follows Pell’s singer as she flubs take after take, growing more and more exasperated with each one. For Mulaney — who worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live with both Meyers and Pell — it was a familiar vibe.
“A little of what I recognized in the Pennebaker documentary is that feeling of working with people that you really like, but now it’s 4 a.m. and you’re really getting on each other’s nerves,” Mulaney says, laughing. “I knew Paula would know what it was like to be surrounded by annoying beta males at 4 in the morning.”
But the episode’s standout track is “My Home Court,” a catchy ode to apartment décor sung by Hamilton alum Goldsberry. (Sample line: “And the brown and the beige, and the brown and the beige.”) “To use one’s vocal instrument with so much beauty on lyrics so stupid is a gift,” Mulaney says with a laugh.
Sadly, not every song made the final cut. “We toyed for a while with one song about a group of people in one apartment ordering Chinese food, and everyone trying to get their order in over the phone,” Mulaney explains. “I am sorry we didn’t crack that one.”
Still, he says, we may yet see Co-Op staged for real one day. “There’s six songs,” Mulaney muses. “Maybe if we get the Chinese food one going, [that could be] your big curtain number. I think you could make a one-act out of it.”
Documentary Now! airs Wednesdays at 11 p.m. ET on IFC.