Company: Original Cast Album (1970) + Chance + Zelig-like friend Stephen Paley
This is a post about serendipity: new friends, old passions, theatrical design, and Stephen Sondheim. I am surrounded on most days by Stephen Sondheim‘s music and legacy in some way, shape, or form. (And please hie thee to the new HBO documentary Six by Sondheim if you haven’t yet seen it — luminous, referenced a bit later in this post.) I spent many happy days in 2013 with the archives of frequent Sondheim collaborator Boris Aronson for Chance Magazine (see my essays on our photo shoot of the Follies set model, and on our photo shoot of Aronson’s archived designs on paper and other ephemera) who created the physical stage worlds for scores of productions from the 1920s through the 1970s, including the worlds in which many 1970s Sondheim musicals lived. Those archive research hours resulted in a Monograph in issue two of Chance, on newsstands now in NYC and in the mailboxes of subscribers. And a few weeks ago, I found that one of my marvelous multifaceted friends had surprising connections to all of the above. Here’s the story.
I first met my lovely friend (photographer, music producer, man of many talents, current resident of LA) Stephen Paley almost three years ago at a confab of Judy Garland fans in New York City. As a group we visited Carnegie Hall and the Palace and shared films and memories of people who had seen Garland perform. Paley and I were instantly drawn to each other as pals. At the beginning of our first cocktail party conversation at Sardi’s (natch), I began the usual who-what-when-where-why kinds of question I love asking new acquaintances and got a response that almost led me to move onto another party goer — and what a loss that would have been to me, indeed. By the time I asked my third or fourth social follow-up question, Paley wanted to talk about something else. He cut short my questioning with an apparently dismissive comment: “visit my Wikipedia page.” This sounded like an odd boast to my Midwestern-by-birth sensibilities, and I was put off my game and by him for a few beats. After we laughed about it (again, we were at Sardi’s and I wasn’t about to do an Internet search in the midst of a social chat), we gingerly re-entered the varying details of his life and times. His friendship with Angela Lansbury dating back decades. His friendship with Sondheim dating back decades. His attendance at the Garland Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1961 primarily because he was good friends with Anthony Perkins and Perkins was going — 19-year-old Paley tagged along without a ticket and was not really a big Garland fan at the time, and bribed an usher to be allowed to stand at the back of a box in the hall. And his appearance in a Broadway show called Take Her, She’s Mine — his only work ever as an actor — with Elizabeth Ashley and directed by George Abbott. I mean … who would BELIEVE this? No wonder he wants to refer people to an online resource to allow the conversation to cover something other than — “are you kidding me?” with predictable frequency. We became internet pen pals.
On a recent visit NYC, Paley and I talked over lunch at the Polish Tea Room, then visited his room at the Paramount to pick up a portrait he took of Mr. Sondheim at the piano during the filming of a sequence Paley produced and co-wrote with Frank Rich in 1976 for CBS’s Camera Three called “Anatomy of a Song.” This show, I realized later, did for Sondheim’s tune “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures what the 2013 HBO documentary Six by Sondheim does six times over — examines with Sondheim himself his creative process of writing a song.
We talked about Chance and my rambles through the Lincoln Center Aronson archives for my Aronson monograph, including the fascinating documentation of the projection design photographs of 1970 New York City for Aronson’s set and project designs for Company. Paley mentioned quietly that he had taken those photographs. I am now accustomed to such details of Paley’s life, these surprising appearance at historical events (historical to me at any rate), and took a note to check into the documentation of that detail. I went on to talk about my love for the D.A. Pennebaker‘s marvelous documentary (1st of what was intended to be a series, destined to be a one-off) on the recording of the Company original cast recording — Company: Original Cast Album (1970). Paley noted, rather breezily, that he was visible in a few frames.
My research upon my return home was focused and delightful. First stops were various sources for digital versions of the original Company Playbill. Was young Paley credited for his work on the projection photographs? Yes indeed (see image at right, lines 3 and 4).
I next revisit Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary film covering the old school opening weekend all night recording session for the original cast recording. Company: Original Cast Album. What I find there, with this new Paley-focused lens, is fabulous. First up, I was mesmerized by our old pal Elaine Stritch as she attempts to lay down the audio record of her performance of worldly-wise Joanne. First, last and always, she just slays me. And from the first moments of the documentary in this sequence listening to the overture, to the penultimate moments during which Ms. Stritch is being told after a long night’s recording session that she will need to return to record the show stopping “Ladies Who Lunch” to an orchestral track, she is absolutely riveting. Her performance of this tune in the recording studio immediately preceding this decision we are privy to in “real time” to discard the tired voice, late night session of “Ladies Who Lunch” is indeed a three act play — for the camera. Only the documentary tells this tale.
And can the young Stephen Paley be spied in the documentary, standing near the costume designer D.D. Ryan, as he suggested during our Polish Tea Room conversation? Through a careful viewing and many screen captures, I did indeed find him lurking about the edges of the filming, often knowing precisely where the camera was even when the others in the shot seemed not to know or not to care.
Paley is a Zelig, a man with an impressive career that has touched many aspects of and personages involved in show business and the music business. And he speaks truth about his experiences. Sondheim links us in the most surprising ways — Aronson + Garland + Stritch + Paley. Life is indeed a serendipitous adventure.
© Martha Wade Steketee (December 28, 2013)