For a handful of days last June, a small community college just outside of Portland was transformed into a smoke-filled, polyester-clad simulacrum of 1970s fashion horrors and Broadway tunes, as the cast of Documentary Now’s February 27 episode filmed a cast album recording session.
Inspired by the 1970 Original Cast Album: Company, D.A. Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall look at the recording of the George Furth-Stephen Sondheim musical Company, the episode (“Original Cast Album: Co-Op”) finds songwriter Simon Sawyer (John Mulaney), director Howard Pine (James Urbaniak), and producer Benedict Juniper (Taran Killam) overseeing the recording of their new musical the day after it opened to less-than-rapturous reviews. So unenraptured were the critics, in fact, that Juniper is forced to announce the show’s immediate closing during the session—leaving the cast members to fend for themselves as they try to bring to life the complex harmonies and questionable lyrics one last time.
As they perform the songs about life in their co-op apartment building—complete with surly doorman, extramarital affairs, and awkward holiday parties—tensions run high. But much as in the original documentary (in which Elaine Stritch seems to have a nervous breakdown in slow motion), professionalism eventually wins out. Unlike in the original, the songs being preserved aren’t quite as cutting edge—but they’re definitely memorable.
“The idea of [Co-Op] and how it’s written is that it’s awkward,” composer Eli Bolin (who collaborated with lyricist Mulaney) told Playbill on set during a break in filming. “One of the songs [sung by Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry] is a tennis pro who wants to move into the co-op, so her song is a pitch to the co-op board, but the lyrics are filled with tennis metaphors. But then the song is also about—very specifically—how she wants to redecorate the apartment, so it’s also filled with references to ’70s décor.”
The resulting six songs (available on LP) take viewers from a cocaine-fueled breakdown (written by Seth Meyers) to Robby the doorman’s plea for holiday tips (sung by a breathless Richard Kind) to Paula Pell’s Patty (a delicious spin on Stritch’s infamous appearance in the documentary) struggling through “I’ve Gotta Go,” her big 11 o’clock number. Through it all, the episode—directed by Alex Buono—revels in the series' renowned dedication to authenticity and meticulous recreation, much to the amazement of its cast.
“The authenticity, production value, wardrobe.. all of it,” Taran Killam marveled. Even the professional musicians were part of the act, donning period costumes as they played the score on camera. Pell chimed in, adding, “The scenes in the [recording] booth, with everyone smoking, took me right back to that nicotine brown world.”
Where the Documentary Now! version of their Original Cast Album deviates is in its story. Not that the storyline is radically different—just that the Co-Op documentary has one. In the original, Pennebaker captured fleeting moments of doubt, frustration, joy, and casual banter but the end result was almost impressionistic. Here, “this version has a little more narrative,” Alex Brightman joked. “[In the original] it’s like someone dropped two cameras into a recording studio with no permission. It looks like found footage. It’s not even feature length!”
Watch the first scene above, and catch the full episode on IFC February 27.