STAGE TO SCREEN: Keeping Company With Stritch on DVD

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Keeping Company With Stritch on DVD This may be the Christmas when America buys into DVD in a big way. High-profile titles like “The Matrix,” “Gladiator” and the first season of “The Sopranos” are enticing more and more film junkies to invest in the supplemental audio tracks, storyboards, outtakes and other bells and whistles that many (but not all) releases offer. My local video store now has DVDs featured more prominently than VHS tapes.

This may be the Christmas when America buys into DVD in a big way. High-profile titles like “The Matrix,” “Gladiator” and the first season of “The Sopranos” are enticing more and more film junkies to invest in the supplemental audio tracks, storyboards, outtakes and other bells and whistles that many (but not all) releases offer. My local video store now has DVDs featured more prominently than VHS tapes.

It also rents out DVD players, which enabled me to finally check out the brand-new release of “Original Cast Album: Company” the other night. (Don’t let my online column fool you: I am a Luddite and damn proud of it.) If any of you have never seen this one-hour documentary, shame on you. It offers an indispensable look at the making of the 1970 recording, where much of the world got its first real glimpse of Stephen Sondheim’s musical and psychological gifts.

The supplementary material contains the obligatory audio track, where director D.A. Pennebaker interviews Harold Prince and Elaine Stritch, plus the audio of “Have I Got a Girl for You,” accompanied by a photo gallery. The audio track features a fair amount of ego-feeding, with everyone singing the praises of everyone else, but it also contains plenty of new information.Pennebaker says one potential advertiser, Eastern Airlines, asked them to cut the “Barcelona” sequence, which it felt didn’t cast stewardesses in a positive light. The song stayed, and the advertiser left. And Prince and Stritch are both eloquent as they describe the psychological wear and tear that the show took on original star Dean Jones; the look in Jones’ eyes the second after he finishes “Being Alive” is as devastating as ever.

For many fans, though, the audio track will be of particular interest during Stritch’s legendary implosion during “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Contrary to many other theater fans, I maintain that the documentary would have been fascinating even if Stritch had nailed it on the first take. As it happens, Pennebaker devotes the last quarter of the film to Stritch, who had been singing for hours at that point (and, by her own admission, had downed a few glasses of wine in the sound booth), as she attempts to lay down the definitive track. Diminishing returns quickly set in as Stritch tries to compensate for her vocal exhaustion with what she calls “bad noodling.” She says it was her idea to go last, so that the rest of the actors could go home, and she claims she has no memory of where she went after she finally left the studio at dawn. (After inadequate take after inadequate take, Sondheim ultimately suggested they lay down an orchestral track for Stritch to sing over a few days later.)

During a phone interview, Stritch responded to the often-repeated suggestion that the “Ladies Who Lunch” drama was to some degree a conscious decision on her part. “Nobody would put themselves through that evening just for publicity, I promise you that,” she said. “There’s that whole Actors’ Studio belief that you have to go through something in order to play it. Bullshit.” In retrospect, Stritch said, her problem that night was obvious. “When your voice is tired, you push emotion. And you should never push emotion. That was not me at my best, God knows.” She felt much better about the track she put down three days later, before the Wednesday matinee. “I saw Steve nod his head, and that was it. I just started jumping up and down.” She also began to kick up a small fuss about something on the orchestral track, a line of inquiry that one vicious Sondheim scowl quickly put to an end. “All I need is a dirty look from Steve Sondheim,” she said, “and I’m outta there.”

*

Paul Rudnick’s dizzying pace continues. He’s currently working on a play, he’s had a few pieces in The New Yorker in addition to his regular magazine gig at Premiere, and he could have two films going within the next three months. First up is “Marci X,” a Lisa Kudrow vehicle discussed in a previous column. And he’s supposedly massaging the script for a sequel to “The First Wives Club,” which would supposedly start filming in March with Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. (That’s the earliest that Midler would wrap up her work on her new sitcom, “Bette.”

Meanwhile, another prominent playwright is dipping his toe into Hollywood waters again. Jon Robin Baitz, who memorably adapted his The Substance of Fire a few years ago, is currently working on “People I Know” for Al Pacino. Pacino would play an NYC press agent, supposedly based on PR legend Bobby Zarem, who gets embroiled in a political scandal. As with every other movie these days, the plan is to get rolling before the predicted strikes this summer.

*

Since this is the last column of the year, I wanted to make sure I thanked everyone who has helped me put this column together in 2000. In addition to Stritch, the following film and theater notables have graciously shared their time and knowledge with me: Charles Busch, Brandon Cole, Scott Elliott, Laurence Fishburne, Nicholas Hytner, Philip Kaufman, Kyle McLachlan, Michael Ritchie, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Schock, Tim Slover, Helen Stenborg, Jim Stern, Julia Stiles, John Swanbeck, Matthew Warchus and Doug Wright. I wouldn’t be shocked to see two Tony Awards and one Oscar go to people mentioned within.

Special thanks to David Lefkowitz and Robert Simonson, my editors at Playbill. What I submit and what you see are often quite different, and that has everything to do with those two. Most of all, thanks to you all for your insightful comments, helpful tips, encouraging (and sometimes discouraging) feedback and all-around support. You’re why I do this, and you’re why I plan to do it even better next year.

*

I’m going to skip Cutting-Room Floor this time, because I’m running long. But I wanted to tell you who to watch out for, bearing in mind that various cities get various movies at unpredictable times around the holidays. Judi Dench and Alfred Molina open wide in “Chocolat” on Jan. 5, and the previous week will see “Vatel” (with a Tom Stoppard screenplay), “13 Days” (with Dylan Baker as JFK’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara); and “An Everlasting Piece.” The last film, a comedy about toupees, features recent Broadway emigrés Brian F. O’Byrne (The Lonesome West) and Anna Friel (Closer).

*

My Favorite Thought: Lots of people chimed in with news on “The Wiz,” although I hear the project is now on hold. For what it’s worth, Sherie Rene Scott (as Glinda), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Cowardly Lion), Martin Short (the Wiz), John Leguizamo (Tin Man) and Patti LaBelle (Wicked Witch) were among the names that came back to me, with Paula Abdul choreographing.

Meanwhile, Matt gave his thoughts on a movie of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women:

“I would like a director who has the experience of directing Albee - perhaps Mike Nichols. As for the cast, it may be interesting to have three of the Redgraves - Vanessa, Natasha and Joely--play A, B and C. But it would also be nice to see Katharine Hepburn as A, Glenn Close as B and Calista Flockhart as C. The major problem with filming this piece would be trying to find a way to film it without losing any of the brilliance of the play’s premise - three different women who are actually the same woman. That’s the difficulty in filming a lot of the more recent Pulitzer Prize-winners: The stage versions are sometimes written in a way that could never be transferred onto the silver screen without losing some of the impact on the way.”

(Note from Eric: Maybe I’m just dense, but I have always thought the play would work stronger if the two acts were reversed. That way, it would be clear earlier on who these people are, and the audience would be far more willing to put the effort in and piece together the various facets of the “splintered” version. Just a suggestion.)

*

Your Thoughts: How many of you have DVD players? If so, will you be buying “Original Cast Album: Company”? What would you say are the essential theatre-themed DVDs? If you’re still holding on to your VCR, what would it take to get you to spring for a DVD player? And what movies are you excited about in the theatres right now?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.