Director Marianne Elliott puts the fun and the sex back into Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” This is the production, first staged in London, where the lead character Bobby is now Bobbie. The switch from male to female works, but more important is the light, sexy touch of Elliott’s direction and how it frees the musical from the year of its world premiere, 1970. This very rousing and arousing “Company” revival opened Thursday at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
“Company” was my first Stephen Sondheim musical on Broadway. I saw it in June 1970 shortly after Larry Kert replaced an indisposed Dean Jones to play Bobby, the bachelor with three girlfriends and “all those crazy married friends” who want him to get a wife and settle down. A bachelor with a lot of married friends is a situation that made sense in Manhattan in 1970 among people 35 and older. But the younger generation was already not obeying the marriage rules laid out in George Furth’s book, and by the 1980s, while the show remained loaded with some of Sondheim’s most memorable songs, the story needed an update. Or perhaps, it was best to leave “Company” stuck in its 1970 time capsule, a period piece.
The last Broadway revival of “Company,” directed by John Doyle in 2006, set the show in a cold no man’s land of instrument-playing actors who were neither funny nor sexy; and Raul Esparza, in one of his rare misfires on stage, played a very troubled bisexual Bobby who emitted more angst than Sweeney Todd.
In addition to the switch back to the show’s fun and sexy roots, Elliott’s choice to make Bobby a Bobbie works because this director also turns the character into an Alice in Manhattanland who ends up going down manholes in the city’s streets to find herself trapped in very tiny apartments. She’s turning 35 and still single, but her troubles don’t simply extend from the fact that all her friends are married. Her problem is a badly skewed perception that absolutely everyone else is married, so she needs to be too. Katrina Lenk takes this cipher role and makes Bobbie alternately anxious and horny, sometimes using the latter to hide the former. Vocally, Lenk might have been slightly under the weather at the performance I saw. Her final showstopper “Being Alive” turned into a struggle for her.
About those tiny Manhattan apartments: I immediately missed Boris Aronson’s original vertical set design with its elevators and stairways leading to a network of raised platforms. Elliott opens her “Company” in a cramped living room with everyone taking selfies in anticipation of Bobbie’s birthday party. Gone is Michael Bennett’s original group-grope dance that opened the show with unforgettable exuberance.
Curiously, the claustrophobia of Bunny Christie’s set design provides Elliott with some of her most inspired comic moments. Christie’s set is very site-specific — whether it is a living room, a bedroom or a kitchen – and Bobbie’s friends no longer comment on what’s happening to this character from across the stage. They now invade her space, even when she’s in bed with a flight attendant (Claybourne Elder, being as stupid funny as he is drop-dead buff). Nothing in Hal Prince’s original production was as hysterically slapstick as the new take on “I’m Not Getting Married Today” (delivered full of breath by the delightfully harried Matt Doyle), which Elliott stages in a gay couple’s kitchen where even the refrigerator and cupboards provide entry for nosy friends. Only the disco set seems an odd place for anyone to be singing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Regardless, Patti LuPone delivers. Of course.
Again, I missed Bennett’s original choreography, which had Donna McKechnie using every step, elevator and inch of Aronson’s set to perform the orgasmic “Tick Tock.” The biological tick-tock of Elliott’s interpretation of that song is something the original male creators of “Company” would never have imagined. When a director’s concept is this revelatory, bring on the deconstruction!
The Playbill cites no new writer, but a lot of tinkering has been going on with Furth’s original book. Even in 1970, the wrestling and marijuana scenes came off like generic network sitcom stuff. Now, these scenes and others play like a very good cable comedy series, with the talented Bobby Conte, Christopher Fitzgerald, Greg Hildreth, Rashidra Scott, Christopher Sieber and Jennifer Sinard helping to goose the new, improved material.
One line change intrigues me. In this 2021 version, someone refers to Bobbie’s reminding him of “the Chrysler Building.” It used to be “the Seagram Building.” In certain circles, back in 1970, the Seagram Building comment was code for Bobby’s really being gay, since that building was the East Side’s major cruising area, a distinction it soon lost when the same-sex traffic moved east to the FDR Post Office Building at 909 Third Avenue, where I used to work (upstairs, that is).
Seeing “Company” back in 1970 taught me a great lesson. When it comes to new musicals, don’t trust audiences or the critics, who never really want to hear anything truly new. Only later did most audiences and critics come to appreciate this show. Starting in 1970, The New York Times didn’t give a Sondheim show a good review until Frank Rich raved about “Sunday in the Park With George” in 1984. At my first “Company” performance, which was sold out, the audience didn’t think Elaine Stritch could sing, they didn’t understand why Bobby kept repeating his birthday party, and more than a few of them walked out during “Being Alive” despite great singing from Kert. Oh yes, these were the good old days of Broadway.