Little Things We Do Together
As most people reading this will already know, Company was first reworked for a female Bobbie (previously male Bobby) in 2018. Stephen Sondheim collaborated on a revision with the director Marianne Elliott that ran for 5 months in the West End. I remember thinking that the gender-switch for the lead character was a smart idea and was really looking forward to the Broadway version starring Katrina Lenk, which had 9 previews in March 2020 and then went into Covid hibernation until opening last week. I can now affirm that the gender switch was indeed an interesting twist, an experiment worth trying. What I’m less sure of is whether the celebrated play still deserves its lofty reputation.
In 1970, when it premiered, Company was hailed as proof that musicals had finally grown up. It had unusually complex subject matter for the time—ambivalence about marriage as an institution and personal choice—and that theme tapped powerful social undercurrents from the sexual revolution and the just burgeoning national tide of divorce. The show became popular, several of its gorgeous and memorable Sondheim songs standards of the musical hit parade. Those songs were always the true source of the show’s air of maturity and gravity, as the book by George Furth was a loosely connected string of lightweight vignettes about 5 married couples who swirl around Bobby and vaunt their peccadilloes. Critics said Sondheim had invented a whole new theme-based “concept” paradigm for musicals.
I was too young to see Hal Prince’s original production. I first saw Company in the 1995 Roundabout revival directed by Scott Ellis, when I was the same age as Bobby, whose 35th birthday is the show’s fulcrum. Most of its vignettes and songs use the caricatured couples either to ask whether marriage is worth the effort or to draw Bobby out about why he can’t commit to anyone. Sondheim and Furth (who died in 2008) revised the book to update the play’s environment—adding phone answering machines, for instance, changing “girls” to “women,” and inserting a few nods to AIDS. It was abundantly clear, though, that the basic premise came from the world of 1970. The 1995 trappings were overlaid on a dated social ground.
That is exactly how the current revival feels too. Bobbie is now a she, the couples have become interracial, in one case gay, and everyone has cellphones so dating starts with swiping right and left. Yet every scene still treats singleness as an anomaly or social aberration that the couples—presumed ambassadors of normalcy—feel obligated to ameliorate. That made a kind of sense right up to the inauguration of divorcee Ronald Reagan. After that, not so much. Today, with half of us ruing the end of privacy and the other half compulsively sharing too much online, the spectacle of five couples harping on Bobbie’s singleness feels like oblivious badgering. Lenk’s Bobbie never has a chance to fear intimacy because she’s too busy fending off flagrant, belted-out insensitivity by her loving frenemies.
There are a few gains to the gender switch. Feminism, alas, never lessened the terror many unpartnered women in their 30s feel about passing their sell-by dates, so the urgency of Bobbie’s 35th birthday takes on a new focus here. Lenk’s character is crowded in her tiny kitchen by increasingly enormous numeral balloons, and ultimately attacks them with a knife. When Bobbie’s friends call her the “perfect babysitter” and wax nostalgic about her taking their kids to the zoo, that has a looming-baby-clock aftertaste it lacked when Bobby’s friends said it. All the passages about Bobbie’s casual sex life take on new color too, because they’re filtered through our female gender assumptions. One gag is a possible improvement: it’s slightly less of a cliché for Bobbie to date a hunky airhead male flight attendant (played by Claybourne Elder) than for Bobby to date a bombshell-female one.
A change I’d call a clear improvement is the new version of “Getting Married Today”—Sondheim’s famous patter song about wedding-day cold feet, originally sung by the manic character Amy. This number, a show-stopper, was always a red herring, frequently cited as proof that Company’s plot had no coherence. Amy has now become Jamie (Matt Doyle), about to marry Paul (Etai Benson) in a gay wedding that wasn’t possible back in 1995. The reworked song thus brings a surprising new dash of coherence: to the play’s list of marriage qualms we may now add current anxieties over how legal marriage may erode gay lifestyles (Jamie: “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should”). Doyle’s 200-words-a-minute rendition is a tour de force of panicked hilarity.
It must be said that the gender-switch doesn’t always scan. The husbands are all such buffoons, for instance, that the multiple hints at possible hanky-panky between them and Bobbie make no emotional sense. She sings about their attractions in “Someone is Waiting”—“My loyal David, Loving Paul, Cute Jamie, Happy Peter, Handsome Larry, Wait for me”—but it comes off as pure rhetoric. Lenk’s Bobbie is charming but much more isolated emotionally than the male Bobbys I’ve seen (including Boyd Gaines in 1995). She seems cut off from real intimacy not just with her lovers but with everyone, emphatically including her friends.
So then, what’s the point? I wanted to ask. It was Bobby’s affectionate friendships that brought warmth and poignancy to Company. That’s what made the mood of the final number “Being Alive” hopeful: Bobby was a demonstrably loving person who finally accepted that he had to let a life partner in. Now “Being Alive” is all resentment and anger. Lenk dashes back and forth across the stage literally pushing her 10 friends away, and that leaves the play feeling acrid and harsh. Its take-away, to me, is that everyone really should leave her alone.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St.