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Paula Pell and Documentary Now! put original twists on an iconic moment from musical theater history

Image: Documentary Now! (IFC)
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Documentary Now! is a show not just for fans but for fanatics. It’s so precise in its parody that whatever subject material its original source material celebrates is similarly celebrated in the parody—or, in some cases, whatever its source material criticizes, the parody sharply criticizes with equal gusto. In the case of “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” a sendup of the 1970 doc Original Cast Album: Company, which chronicles the recording of the cast album for Stephen Sondheim’s Company, this is a parody for fanatics not just of documentaries but specifically of musicals and Sondheim. Seth Meyers and John Mulaney have penned a script so airtight in its particular tics and mimicry that there are times when you do indeed forget it’s faked. But the moments where it does deviate are where its genius lies.

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And because this is a musical documentary, that means they had to pen actual music, too. They teamed up with composer Eli Bolin to do so, and the results are nothing short of magical. Replicating Sondheim perfectly is an impossible task, and they know better than to take it on, so instead they find specific Sondheim tics to play with, making the songs sound not exactly like Sondheim but rather Sondheim-esque. The faux musical’s titular song “Co-Op” perfectly embodies this, playing with dynamics and also spoken lines in a way that’s just so realistic. These songs are where Documentary Now! really pulls off a masterclass in parody. Things are heightened just enough for comedic effect but without departing too far from the work its skewering. It’s somehow both satire and homage all at once. There’s a lot of fun in how much the episode seems to revere Sondheim.

An ideal cast—that manages to be both funny and musically skilled—has been assembled, including Richard Kind who actually has Sondheim experience as well as Renee Elise Goldsberry, who originated the role of Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton but also was a scene-stealing recurring member of The Good Wife’s cast as Geneva Pine. Taran Killam also appears and is a delight as usual. Mulaney stands out as the Sondheim standin, Simon Sawyer. Sawyer’s critical and also a little nonsensical, seeming to vibrate on a frequency that no one else can really access. Hilariously enough, the actual Sondheim’s response to the music of this episode reiterates just how good Mulaney’s impression of him is: “Well, I would have to listen again. The lyrics are crowded,” he said, without a trace of irony, of the music.

Paula Pell also makes an impression as an exasperated star whose real-life analog is technically Elaine Stritch. One of the more memorable parts of the parody is its rendering of one of the more memorable parts of the original, when Stritch does a long series of late-night takes for “Ladies Who Lunch.” In the original, you’re watching a master at work, Stritch’s perfectionism as palpable as Sondheim’s. Her frustration comes through, but this isn’t a star’s tantrum. It’s someone working hard, pushing themselves, two geniuses who can see the end result but can’t quite get there. Here, Documentary Now! doesn’t play things too close to the original. It would be an impossible sequence to replicate fully, and instead Documentary Now! exaggerates the exasperation, and Pell has a lot of fun with it as she does a bunch of takes on a song hilariously titled “I Gotta Go.” It pulls elements from the original but stands on its own as a funny, weird, and enthralling climax to the parody.

“I worry we pushed her too far,” Mulaney’s Sawyer says in a profound understatement. It’s tense, and it’s funny. Both Mulaney and Pell aren’t doing exact impressions of their roles, instead creating something new entirely but that still feels connected to Sondheim and Stritch.

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Original Cast Album:Company is a documentary for musical nerds, and Original Cast Album: Co-op therefore is, too. It’s incredible to think that this parody could bring new eyes to a documentary that, while certainly not underrated, is still somewhat obscure outside of the musical theater world. But that’s the kind of show this is, one that celebrates niche interests in a way that can also inspire them.


Stray observations

  • I went to arts school for musical theater, and this documentary was literally required viewing.
  • This show certainly pays attention to the details, and the authenticity in the costuming and style to evoke the 1970s is outstanding.
  • “If there’s two things I know, it’s women and exactly what’s going to happen in the future.”
  • If you haven’t seen the original, I do recommend it, but at least check out the Elaine Stritch scene.
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