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COMPANY: Sondheim Lets Bobby Out of the Closet


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The question of whether the lead character in Stephen Sondheim's seminal 1970 musical Company is gay has been hovering over the show for years. Now, Sondheim, along with director John Tiffany, is reworking the show to make Bobby's sexuality explicitly clear. The show, which won six Tonys for its original run is essentially a series of vignettes about Bobby, a single guy who has a bunch of married friends, but can't settle down with a woman himself. Patrick Healy of the New York Times writes that Tiffany, who directed the Tony Award-winning Once and the revival of The Glass Menagerie currently running, reworked the show so that Bobby is now "a gay man with commitment issues and multiple boyfriends." Some of the formerly female roles will now be played by men. In a reading set to take place this month, Alan Cumming will play Joanne (or whatever he'll be called now), a role famously inhabited by Elaine Stritch in the original. (She sings the show's most famous number, "Ladies Who Lunch.") Sondheim told Healy that while the show will still have the same themes "marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970." He added: "We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way."

 

[The above is a slightly edited, abbreviated version that ran in theatlanticwire.com last week.]

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The reading was last week. Haven't really heard much about how it was received.

 

I'm firmly in the camp that just doesn't see why Bobby ever had to be considered gay/closeted in the first place. (Plus, Sondheim has since made it clear that they wrote Bobby to be straight - no matter what people may want to think about the character.) I think there's a huge difference between a person who has trouble committing to a long-term relationship of any sort, and a person who is living a lie as a sexual being. (Let's look at it the other way - is a gay man who can't commit to a boyfriend, let alone marry a man - therefore secretly straight????)

 

I'm all for people exploring new ways to do a show. But, even with Sondheim's participation and permission here, I tend to wonder if the proposed changes will really bring a fresh approach and attitude to the piece, or if they will just seem like gratuitous changes that call attention to the fact that they are changes?

 

I'm definitely curious to hear how this went.

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I'd love to hear if they put back the original song that Bobby had at the end, and the audience's reaction if they did.

 

There was no audience. It was a closed reading.

 

But no, I don't believe any changes were made to the score, outside of some probable lyric changes.

 

Revivals of the show have included one of those many original finale songs, "Marry Me A Little," at the end of Act I. I think it's a wonderful song, but I don't really think it belongs in that spot in the show. Ironically, one of the other cut songs from the show, "Multitudes of Amys," would have been much more specific to the scene that now contains "Marry Me A Little" - that would be an interesting addition. But I actually think the problem is that there's no real need for Bobby to have a song at that moment in the show (i.e. the end of Act I, as Bobby reaches out to Amy and asks her to marry him). I tend to think the really important moment in that scene is Amy's response to the proposal ("Bobby, you have to want to marry SOMEbody, not just someBODY...") - if anyone should get a song there, it's her, not him. But I think it all works better in dialogue anyway.

 

As for "Happily Ever After," which is the song I assume you were referring to, it was replaced because Sondheim and Prince just felt it was too angry for the moment - and they're right. It's also a wonderful song in its own right, but I think the desperate reach of "Being Alive" is far more effective than the desperate attack of "Happily Ever After." I think "Happily" sets the wrong tone altogether. "Being Alive" gives us a sense of hope that Bobby will pull himself together, after everything he's just experienced in the show (which, conceptually, all happens in the blink of an eye as Bobby arrives at the door to his apartment, where all his friends may - or may not be - there to surprise him on his 35th birthday); we leave the theatre with, hopefully, some sympathy for the guy. If he were to sing "Happily Ever After" instead, we'd all just see what a douchebag he is, and the whole show would have built to nothing.

 

Meanwhile, I have heard though some sources that Sondheim was not at all happy with the results of the reading, and he won't let the project go forward. I don't know if this is really true, but I did hear it.

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Thanks. I have read about the reading on All That Chat and here. But, no one has taken the time to write so well about what is going on. "Company" is not my favorite musical, so I have no great stake in all this. But, I have seen enough productions of "Company" to understand why others like it so much.

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The reading was last week. Haven't really heard much about how it was received.

 

I'm firmly in the camp that just doesn't see why Bobby ever had to be considered gay/closeted in the first place. (Plus, Sondheim has since made it clear that they wrote Bobby to be straight - no matter what people may want to think about the character.) I think there's a huge difference between a person who has trouble committing to a long-term relationship of any sort, and a person who is living a lie as a sexual being. (Let's look at it the other way - is a gay man who can't commit to a boyfriend, let alone marry a man - therefore secretly straight????)

 

I'm all for people exploring new ways to do a show. But, even with Sondheim's participation and permission here, I tend to wonder if the proposed changes will really bring a fresh approach and attitude to the piece, or if they will just seem like gratuitous changes that call attention to the fact that they are changes?

 

I'm definitely curious to hear how this went.

 

I'm all for new ways of looking at old shows too but sometimes, I think it just goes so far off the tracks that it's impossible to work. I hated the Raul Esparza version of "Company" in which they all played their own instruments, for example (wasn't crazy about that way of doing "Sweeny Todd" either). As an actor, I wonder what new skills I'm going to have to learn just to get into a show - play an instrument? perform magic? do acrobatics? paint scenery? sew sequins onto costumes? conduct the orchestra? work the box office? clean toilets?

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I'm all for new ways of looking at old shows too but sometimes, I think it just goes so far off the tracks that it's impossible to work. I hated the Raul Esparza version of "Company" in which they all played their own instruments, for example (wasn't crazy about that way of doing "Sweeny Todd" either). As an actor, I wonder what new skills I'm going to have to learn just to get into a show - play an instrument? perform magic? do acrobatics? paint scenery? sew sequins onto costumes? conduct the orchestra? work the box office? clean toilets?

 

Ah yes - the infamous "John Doyle" approach to non-theatre, lol. Using actors as musicians or not, he seems to have this thing for never letting his actors connect to each other onstage (sort of a misinterpretation of Brecht's "alienation effect" perhaps?) - I don't find his style of directing satisfying in the least. I know other people love his work, so whatever. (In the recent past I worked on a project with another renowned "avant garde" director - she and her colleagues were all wonderful people and conscientious artists, but I have to say the resulting show was the one of the worst bits of faux-theatre nonsense I've ever seen or done...and yet I know people in the audience who loved it. To each his own..)

 

I saw the Doyle Sweeney Todd on tour. I have to say I really like the new orchestrations, and enjoyed the performance from a musical standpoint. But that was also the problem. I could have simply closed my eyes and enjoyed the glorified concert and all would have been just fine. But there was no acting going on - to be clearer, no INTERacting - essentially just singers singing and playing instruments - and occasionally doing weird abstract bits of staging (carrying around that damn little white coffin - what the hell was it for, etc). I *did* find I could buy into the use of the musical instruments as part of the play-within-a-play setting - it would seem (although Doyle denies this, of all things) that the setting was some sort of insane asylum where the patients seemed to be acting out the play of Sweeney Todd (much like the setting of Marat/Sade).

 

But the Company didn't have that overall setting...and so I found the use of instruments more distracting. (I actually expected to like his Company more, as the piece is already abstractly written - but I found his take on it rather superfluous and just distracting instead of illuminating). Add to that that the musical skills of the actor/singers were not nearly as accomplished as in the Sweeney Todd production (although, again, I enjoyed most of the orchestrations themselves), it was really an evening of very uneven music-making, and still not much acting/interacting going on (because god forbid Doyle should ever let any of his actors connect onstage).

 

To contrast, what a gift the more recent HD/New York Philharmonic concert version of Company was! Ironic that it was billed truly as a concert, instead of a full production - yet it had much more production value (simple as it was) and much more honest performing throughout. (Particularly in the scenework!) And they had almost no rehearsal!! Once could quibble with some of the casting - was NPH a bit too young to be a credible Bobby? Was Christina Hendricks' April a bit too manic and mugg-y? (AMY should be the crazy one, lol - not April...) - and I have to say I rarely like Lonny Price's direction for these concert performances (this one was a nice surprise) - but this was really a joy from beginning to end. I walked out of the movie theatre that night saying "THAT'S how Company goes," lol.

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To contrast, what a gift the more recent HD/New York Philharmonic concert version of Company was! Ironic that it was billed truly as a concert, instead of a full production - yet it had much more production value (simple as it was) and much more honest performing throughout. (Particularly in the scenework!) And they had almost no rehearsal!! Once could quibble with some of the casting - was NPH a bit too young to be a credible Bobby? Was Christina Hendricks' April a bit too manic and mugg-y? (AMY should be the crazy one, lol - not April...) - and I have to say I rarely like Lonny Price's direction for these concert performances (this one was a nice surprise) - but this was really a joy from beginning to end. I walked out of the movie theatre that night saying "THAT'S how Company goes," lol.

 

I saw the five or six-performance of "Company" with NPH in person. I agree that it was amazing, especially, as you write, pulling it all together in such a small amount of time. When I said that I did not particularly like "Company," I forgot about that concert version. No, Christina Hendricks was not right for April. And Avery Fisher Hall is not as intimate as most Broadway theaters, but that "Compant" may have been as good as it gets (taking the original cast version out of considerate for the moment).

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I blush to admit it, but I paid a lot (for those days) to see the original production in 1970, and it made so little impression on me that I have no memory of what it was all about. All I can remember now is Elaine Stritch singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," but I don't remember what the song was about, either.

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  • 2 weeks later...

As for "Happily Ever After," which is the song I assume you were referring to, it was replaced because Sondheim and Prince just felt it was too angry for the moment - and they're right. It's also a wonderful song in its own right, but I think the desperate reach of "Being Alive" is far more effective than the desperate attack of "Happily Ever After." I think "Happily" sets the wrong tone altogether. "Being Alive" gives us a sense of hope that Bobby will pull himself together, after everything he's just experienced in the show (which, conceptually, all happens in the blink of an eye as Bobby arrives at the door to his apartment, where all his friends may - or may not be - there to surprise him on his 35th birthday); we leave the theatre with, hopefully, some sympathy for the guy. If he were to sing "Happily Ever After" instead, we'd all just see what a douchebag he is, and the whole show would have built to nothing.

 

 

I remember reading almost the opposite: that Sondheim thought that "Being Alive" was a cop-out.

 

The "Being Alive" final is, to me, like all of a sudden, Bobby has become just as soppy and sentimental as everybody else. He just wants someone to love, and so the show ends just like every other show about this kind of thing. Ho hum.

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I remember reading almost the opposite: that Sondheim thought that "Being Alive" was a cop-out.

 

The "Being Alive" final is, to me, like all of a sudden, Bobby has become just as soppy and sentimental as everybody else. He just wants someone to love, and so the show ends just like every other show about this kind of thing. Ho hum.

 

"Company" is a very difficult show and I'm not sure it lives up to the legend it has become. I saw the American cast in the London production when I was in drama school there; in fact, by accident, I was at their opening night. I think the reason people think the show is better than it really is is because of the performance of its original cast memorialized on the documentary about the cast album. (In London, I saw Larry Kert,not Dean Jones.) Stritch performing "Ladies Who Lunch", Pamela Myers singing "Another 100 People", for example, and Kert's (to me) definitive rendition of "Being Alive" are really strong memories from that night in 1971. I had seen Machehnie in "Promises, Promises" (also in London - with Betty Buckley and Tony Roberts!) but what she did with "Tick Tock" in "Company" was beyond any Broadway dancing I had seen up to that time. My most vivid memory of the show is of Donna coming down in the elevator on the steel set dressed in lingerie and then just ripping into that dance once she hit the floor. It was spectacular. I liked the recent PBS production with Neil Patrick Harris and Patti Lupone, and thought Martha Plimpton was particularly superb, but it once again pointed up to me that the show works well only when it is performed well. I have seen dinner theatre, summer stock, repertory and college productions of "Company" and they all sink or swim based on how well they are performed. There are other Sondheim shows that can be great with mediocre performances ("Forum", "Gypsy") because the shows are so good that they can withstand average performances but "Company" is not one of them.

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The original Broadway production was a case of a collaboration of supremely gifted artists. The Sondheim score, Michael Bennett's choreography, George Furth's book, the ground breaking set of Boris Aronson, all came together in a spectacular fashion. When you add to that a very talented cast ( Elaine Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Beth Howland, Robert Kimbrough, Dean Jones et al) you have a show that became legendary. Today we have only the score, and the book. Theater is such a collaborative art form. Once a production ends, so many of the elements are gone.

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When you add to that a very talented cast ( Elaine Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Beth Howland, Robert Kimbrough, Dean Jones et al) you have a show that became legendary.

 

Don't forget, by the way, that Dean Jones was only with the show for a month. (One of those real-life vs. theatre ironies - he was going through a divorce and was finding it difficult to play the role.) Larry Kert took over after that. But Jones did the recording, of course.

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I remember reading almost the opposite: that Sondheim thought that "Being Alive" was a cop-out.

 

The "Being Alive" final is, to me, like all of a sudden, Bobby has become just as soppy and sentimental as everybody else. He just wants someone to love, and so the show ends just like every other show about this kind of thing. Ho hum.

 

"Make me confused / Mock me with praise / Let me be used" - that's soppy and sentimental?? There's a hell of a lot of pain in "Being Alive," and I have never thought for one second that it's the least bit sentimental.

 

In fact, if any of Bobby's songs are sentimental, the closest one would be "Someone Is Waiting," where he wishes for an idealized woman built on all the traits of his "safe" married female friends. (Notice that the single women that might be attainable for him - Kathy, Marta, April - are not mentioned in the song even once.) We go from that - a slightly poetic ode to all the women he conveniently can't have, to the pain of realizing that he NEEDS, by the end of the show, to have something he doesn't particularly want to face. Soppy and sentimental would be admitting it's all going to be just fine and dandy. "I'll always be there / As frightened as you / To help us survive being alive" is hardly a bouquet of roses.

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