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9 February 2022

Watching the Company cast album, I sense the thrill and the terror of singing in front of Stephen Sondheim

The commitment to getting it right verges on cruelty, insisting on take after take – and all of these vocals happening in a room full of cigarette smoke!

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve just watched a film whose subject matter is the recording of an important album 50 years ago. I know, I know, you’re feeling you have read enough about this already, and you’re wondering how anyone can wring another column out of it. But bear with me, because I’m not talking about the Beatles, but about the original cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Did you know there was a film made of the cast recording in 1970? Directed by DA Pennebaker of all people? It had completely passed me by, even though I consider myself a fully paid-up fan and Company is probably my favourite musical. I only found out because someone tweeted about it at the weekend, and after I got over feeling like an idiot for my ignorance I bought a copy.

Inside the DVD box is a set of liner notes, although that description does a disservice to what is in fact a lengthy essay, brilliantly insightful and informative, by the writer Mark Harris. In it, he tells us that the cast recording was scheduled, as per Broadway tradition, on the first weekend after opening, just a few days after the reviews had appeared. This is, to me, mind-blowing information. I’d always imagined cast recordings were made at the end of the run, with the show and the performers all running like clockwork, the inevitable flaws and kinks long since worked out, and the whole process a simple affair.

[see also: Humans think they own the world but, outnumbered by birds, I am dumbfounded]

Not a bit of it. What we witness in this film is a high-stakes, nail-bitingly tense marathon of a session: a Sunday that drags on into the early hours of a Monday, exhilaration stretching into exhaustion; the whole film, as Harris writes, “a tribute to the ‘I can’t go on/I’ll go on’ determination of the old-fashioned Broadway trouper”. It is extraordinary, and at its climax you get to see Elaine Stritch recording “The Ladies Who Lunch”.

After her first take, Ben and I turn to each other and say, “God that was amazing”, although I do add – being, as I say, a bit of a Company nerd – “I’m pretty sure that’s not the version on the album”. It had been eye-wateringly fiery, almost punky in its attitude and aggression, in places more yelled than sung, more manic than musical.

When the film cuts from her to the control room, we see the producer Thomas Z Shepard and Sondheim both in a state of disappointment, rubbing their faces wearily and muttering, aware that it is not good enough. They can hear that she is tired, and singing in a way tired singers know how – dodging some of the high notes, half speaking lines that should be, as Shepard scolds her, “SUNG, please”.

Their commitment to getting it right verges on cruelty, insisting on take after take – and all of these vocals happening in a room full of cigarette smoke! My God! It used to be the norm. Singing and smoky rooms went hand in hand, compromising lungs in a way that would now be considered criminal, and no one thought to question it. When, late in the night, Stritch walks into the control room, I can’t help noticing that she herself has a cigarette in her hand. The bravado of the old days can still sometimes take your breath away.

Throughout the film the glimpses of Sondheim himself are thrilling. He’s 40 years old, not a newcomer by any means, but is at the very start of his purple patch, and still working to prove that he is a composer as well as lyricist. His attention to detail is obsessive, but how else do you get that work?

He is precise, bordering on pedantic; it must have been both a thrill and a terror to sing in front of him. He corrects a singer who has altered one note in a long, fast-moving sequence; another he coaches in the pronunciation of a word. He is always polite, and seemingly gentle, but it is relentless, the kind of patience that could kill you. “I can keep at this for as long as you’ve got,” he implies, “all day, if need be, all night – forever.”

It makes me shiver, with a mixture of awe and horror. I think I’m going to watch it again now.

[see also: One of my old cassettes takes me back to when I was the moody girl on guitar]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game