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Why the PBS Doc ‘Keeping Company With Sondheim’ Is a “Detective Story” Instead of a “Museum Piece”


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Stephen Sondheim is one of the theater’s most influential figures, which makes him ripe for the kind of pick-apart chronicling the documentary genre is known for.

The latest iteration of the Broadway icon’s musical Company — a gender-swapped and LGBTQ-inclusive imagining directed by Marianne Elliott  — is also seemingly perfect for a filmed version or behind-the-scenes doc, thanks to its modern retelling and Sondheim’s involvement.

But with PBS’ latest Great Performances entry, Keeping Company With Sondheim, director Andrew Douglas and producer David Sabel aren’t doing either while somehow also doing both. Filmed over two years — through the pandemic and Sondheim’s death — the more than an hourlong documentary examines who the late theater legend was as an artist and the impact he had on theater through one of his most significant and most defining works: the musical Company.

Through a mix of archival footage, b-roll and interviews with members of the show’s original cast and current gender-swapped run cast members, Elliot and her production team, New York theater critics, Sondheim’s biographer, Broadway lovers like Cynthia Nixon as well as stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Candance Bushnell and Sondheim himself, the PBS doc tells the story of how a musical over 50 years has captured a changing city, creative arts industry, gender and society.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter about the doc that debuted on May 27 and is now available for streaming,  Douglas and Sabel break down their approach to capturing the story of one of the theater’s most revered innovators.

This film has faced and chronicled a lot of curveballs. Can you talk about how you got involved and the larger journey of getting this thing finally to the screen? 

DAVID SABEL I’ve worked for a long time at the National Theatre, where I first met Chris Harper, who’s the producer of this new production of Company on Broadway, and Marianne Elliott, who’s the [stage show] director. When they first knew they were going to do it — Sondheim had given the consent to this gender change, the idea that Marianne and Chris had had for how to revive the production — they asked if there might be a film in it. We thought it was a really interesting idea the way they were changing the text, and obviously, there was the relationship with Sondheim, who at the time was probably in his late 80s. So we followed it, and then PBS decided they wanted to do the film and came on board. Long story short, the production was due to open on Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March 2020. We were filming in the rehearsals, and we were headed back for the opening night — and then we know what happened.

When it looked like Broadway was going to reopen and the production was going to come back, we wanted to pick up on making the film. That’s where Andrew came in. At the time, the director who was originally slated to work on the film wasn’t able to because of another project, but Andrew and Martin [Rosenbaum], my co-producer, had worked together on a wonderful film for the BBC many years ago called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. We all met, had a coffee in London and Andrew very happily came on board. The whole project went on a real journey because of COVID, but then it had another twist because just before the reopening on Broadway, Sondheim passed away. So our whole project’s been this kind of roller coaster, with the film taking on new lenses. It’s like a real kaleidoscope with Andrew who brought new ideas. We’d been through COVID, the production had changed, the actors had changed. So it required, in a way, a completely new look.

ANDREW DOUGLAS I had just moved from California, where I’d been with my family for 15-plus years, to the east coast and I was finishing a soccer film while working in London with musician Jake Bugg to do the score. That’s why I was able to go and have a cup of coffee with the boys. We met and I was excited to get a gig, especially if Martin was involved. But I had to admit over that coffee that I knew nothing about musical theater. I was a film guy, a photography guy, a sports guy, but I wasn’t a musical theater guy. So I told Martin that and he said, ‘I think it might be really interesting.’ Because I’m a good researcher and a quick read, over the next couple of weeks before we proposed me to PBS, I did a lot of research. So there are lots of journeys, but there was a journey for me as well. The way I describe it is as if somebody had said, ‘Look at that over there!’ and I’d looked at it, explored it, turned it over and found it incredibly interesting, but it had always been there. For a documentarian, that’s our bread and butter, really, that kind of curiosity and I think it’s a different kind of film because I’m from the outside. I wasn’t as reverent as maybe somebody else might be. I was big boots in this church of musical theater.

Was having someone on the outside, who upends the classic theater doc form, an advantage of telling a story about the history and cultural impact of a musical that has upended, in its various iterations, the musical form? 

SABEL I was just gonna say, the thing for me as a producer that was attractive from that coffee we had with Andrew was exactly that. I come from the world of theater and film, and my career very much traverses between the two, with Sondheim very close to my heart. So the opportunity to make the film was really exciting, but I loved the idea particularly because there are a lot of great films about Sondheim out there. But we weren’t trying to make a retrospective — actually, I think that’s one of the really important things about this film. We had a particular laser focus on the musical of Company — not just this production, but the show, which was [Sondheim’s] first musical and his first commercial success as composer-lyricist. Obviously, he’d worked as a lyricist. But one of the things the film explores is that it’s really the show in which he feels he found his voice. Looking at it as a show, which some people would argue could be easily dated and feel dated from its premise in 1970, and what the production does kind of reinvents that. That time span of 50 years and the fact that it’s where his life came to an end has turned out to be very moving. I think to have the focus on one show, which does tell a wider story of him as an artist, gave us a particular angle. And someone else coming in, as Andrew says a little bit from the outside, could bring real value.

Why did you want to tell the story of Company beyond a film capture or a more behind-the-scenes documentary of a stage production?

DOUGLAS It’s important for me to not be in the niche of the activity. I did a tennis documentary about four years ago about [Rafael] Nadal and [Roger] Federer. What I was tasked with then was to make a film that spoke outside of the sport, so it was a human story. It’s a bit like theater in general. Someone says it in the film. Theater’s largely an attempt to deliver ideas that will touch anybody. And what was important for me about [Keeping Company With Sondheim], and that I could use my status as an outsider or witness for, was to really not to make a niche film about how interesting it is to take a step behind the curtain on a Broadway stage show. It was important to come out from that and we cherry-picked interviewees precisely to do that. One of the people we wooed was Hilton Als from The New Yorker. He is somebody whose essays start with a particular subject, then very quickly zoom out to put a particular piece in a wider context. We were very keen to do that with the film, of honoring the production, but also telling a larger story about gender and Stephen Sondheim himself in the context of American society. By the way, that changed all the way through — even in my little period on it, I’ve been surprised. I’ve had different ideas and the edit of the film was constantly changing, and certainly changed once Sondheim died.

SABEL I’ve done a number of documentaries like this and often what happens is a making-of, which has its value. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re someone like me who grew up in that world. It’s always interesting seeing the creative process. But they always risk lacking a bit of substance by not speaking to the wider world and being too insular in the world of production. We certainly look at that. We filmed in rehearsals, you hear Marianne and others talk in-depth about their creative process. But it’s not a making of it. It speaks much more to broader societal issues, issues of the human condition. I’ve also been surprised. When I first came to it, I wondered, ‘Is there enough for a film?’ But what this production of Company has done and actually what it did in 1970, as well, was incredibly innovative in its form. It was unusual in the way it was speaking to contemporary issues compared to other shows on Broadway at the time. So Marianne feels very passionately about speaking to the now and in a way, so did Sondheim. Someone in the film talks about him not wanting museum pieces. He really was interested in engaging with new collaboration. That’s the nature of the theater.

Since you’re documenting such an innovative work and an innovative artist, did you try to reimagine or innovate anything about the way you capture your story through doc style? 

DOUGLAS I wish I could say it was something extraordinary, but I think the language of it is very classically a documentary in the sense that it’s a combination of talking-head interviews, archive and b-roll. What I think it does have is a very strong and expansive flow of ideas. In that sense, it’s something fresh, but I hear your question. This particular project, from before I was even on it, is so much about foraging. It’s so piecemeal. I remember, for example, I was watching Six by Sondheim, which was an HBO documentary, and halfway through they have a reconstruction of a particular song performance. This wasn’t really the film for that. The nature of it was that I would just pick up what I could and try and put that together into a coherent whole. I have made that film where the language is very different, but, I’m so unhappy to say this, this is classical. (Laughs.)

SABEL I think it’s less classical than you may give it credit for, but I know what you mean. We interviewed quite a lot of people, Andrew mentioned Hilton Als, but we also interviewed Cynthia Nixon, Candace Bushnell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, all the cast, lots of people associated with production, Michael Riedel, Sondheim’s new biographer David Benedict. There are 25 or 30 voices in it and it’s a film without narration. A more conventional documentary might have voiceover narration and I think one of the very skillful things that Andrew and my editor have done is create a kind of dialogic — a kind of conversation — that’s happening between these people that we all interviewed separately.

The other thing is that you have to give people enough that if they’ve not seen the production, it makes sense. You also want to give enough that if you have seen the production, it gives you a deeper dive and a whole different way into it. If you watch this, you won’t feel, I think, you’ve seen Marianne Elliott’s entire production of Company, but you’ll definitely feel you got a sense of it. Finding that balance of how to speak in a way to different audiences is always a challenge, but that also makes it different from watching a whole show. Rather than going on the journey theatrically with that whole show, you’re in conversation, learning and looking at it in different ways.

Making this film, which looks back at a number of different productions of Company since its debut — including a really wonderful documentary that was made in 1970 about the original cast album by D.A. Pennebaker — is there’s so much rich archive in it. You see the dialogue between these different productions and if the footage didn’t exist, actually, it would be very hard to make the film. It creates a legacy for these things. Yes, the theater is ephemeral and that’s what makes it special, but when you come to looking back on it, and certainly in kind of interrogating it in a documentary sense, you want to be able to juxtapose these things, compare them, look at them, see them refract against each other.

How did you get someone like Cynthia Nixon? And why did you choose these subjects? 

SABEL The reason that we got to Cynthia Nixon and that she’s in the film is because she’s a big fan of the production. She happened to go on the last preview during 2020 before it got shut down. I believe it was around the time she had run for governor so she knew we were headed towards a kind of lockdown and thought I’m gonna go have one great last night in the theater and I really want to see Company. It was also interesting because she’s an interesting actor, director, writer, thinker and politician. But she also has played that iconic role in Sex in the City. It was the reason we also spoke to Candace Bushnell. We have this reference in our minds of what a single 35-year-old woman in New York is through Sex in the City. Cynthia also kind of represented that, and that’s a huge part of what Marianne is exploring in this production. So it was interesting how these things collided.

How did you approach this kind of interrogation of Sondheim and his cultural impact through the musical itself? 

DOUGLAS The more I read and researched, the more controversy I found around what kind of character Bobby was. One of the things that interested me was, “Was Bobby in any way a proxy for Sondheim?” A lot of the Sondheim aficionados would say, “No, he vehemently denied any kind of autobiography in this.” But as I talked to more and more people and did more reading, I found that the character only made sense if it in some way told the story of a closeted gay man from 1970. Like that character only made sense then. With that one step, I felt free to ask a different kind of question. If somebody writes the book, but somebody else writes the music, where’s the text? Where’s the story? Where’s the personal narrative? So we started to explore that a little bit. As we tried to look for his voice, it honestly became a bit of a detective story in a way to find where was he. Hilton was a big help on this as was Lin, to be very clear about what the author does in the sense that everything’s a self-portrait in some ways. That was super interesting to look at this character that had never quite landed in critics’ minds, that was always a bit of an anomaly. That’s what people found kind of curious about it.

The other is that Marianne comes in with her own needs and her own vision for this character, and sees very clearly that you can’t really retell that story about an unmarried man. So she has a great need to switch the gender on this and see if that works. I think that’s part of her impulse to speak to the now. So, as soon as you do that, you just open the door to all these other ideas. To ideas of more diversity in the cast on stage, and more diverse voices. One of the classics of the original Company was this fast-talking song called “Not Getting Married.” It’s distinctive because it’s sung incredibly fast. It’s kind of a virtuoso performance. This is now delivered by two men who are married.

What was interesting to me was that I’ve done all this work, this kind of research — this detective story — and then finally, I got an opportunity to see the play on one of the first previews, and everybody was laughing. I hadn’t laughed in the research. I’d been wringing my hands about, ‘What kind of film is this? What kind of ideas will the film carry?’ Then I go to the theater, and all these ideas that I’ve been pursuing, they’re all caught up in this great, glorious entertainment. I was really puzzled and taken by that. I spent a moment just going, ‘Wait a second. This is this serious thing I’ve been researching about gender and identity. How come everybody’s laughing?’ (Laughs.) It’s that whole Trojan horse aspect to musical theater.

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