When I first heard that surgery was about to be performed on Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s groundbreaking musical Company, I thought it a gimmicky idea that had more to do with hitching a ride on the trendy gender-swapping bandwagon than it did with artistic integrity. I need not have worried. It works very well indeed.
In the original 1970 production, the hero, Bobby, is a personable, 35-year-old New York bachelor who, much to the frustration and efforts of his married friends, is happy to play the field rather than to commit to any one relationship. With no shortage of available females or the single bars they frequent, who could blame him? The new version, set in contemporary Manhattan, turns Bobby into Bobbie – a 35-year-old singleton who, like her male counterpart, is unmarried and also shy of commitment.
In 1970, such behaviour would not have been acceptable, and her social life would have been severely compromised. (Several divorcees, widows and perennially unmarried women I knew in the 70s and 80s told me they were rarely, if ever, invited to dinner parties for fear that they might flirt with their hostess’s husbands.)
Today, with the newfound empowerment of women, greater gender equality and hard-fought independence, the whole dynamic of the show changes. Now, if a woman of 35 is unmarried, it’s probably by choice, not because she can’t find a man. What her single status elicits from her married friends isn’t sympathy, but envy.
Furth’s approach to marriage in his witty but superficial libretto is ambiguous to say the least. In what is basically a series of vignettes (you will search in vain for a plot), being married and everything it entails is put under a microscope with ambiguous results. In essence, what this sophisticated musical demonstrates is that marriage is both a conduit for happiness as well as a curse. I’ve seen about six or seven different productions of it, including Hal Prince’s brilliant original, and I still can’t decide which side it ultimately favours.
This newest interpretation, exhilaratingly directed by Marianne Elliott, is full of wonderfully inventive touches and brings into sharp focus the pros and cons of total commitment to marriage or serious relationships. Today, what society once expected, if not demanded, from men and women is no longer as gender specific as it was 50 years ago. The goal posts have moved.
With her biological clock remorselessly ticking away, Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) takes stock of her life following a surprise party for her 35th birthday given by a group of her married friends, each of whom persuades her in their own way (and in the process tries to convince themselves) that marriage is a joy. They include Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes), an argumentative couple literally as well as metaphorically into Ju Jitsu; thrice married Joanne (Patti LuPone), a self-loathing bitch who can’t understand why her latest long-suffering husband David (Richard Henders) still loves her; and in another gender switch from the original, Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) and his husband-to-be Paul (Alex Gaumond).
Referencing Alice in Wonderland – both physically, as in the series of small, disorientating neon-outlined box-rooms in which much of the action takes place (the designer is Bunny Christie), and occasionally in the surreal way Bobbie views the confusion in her life – Elliott brings a complexity and an uneasy sense of displacement to Furth’s utilitarian text, into which Sondheim has weaved one of his most durable scores.
With lyrics as witty, wise and well-turned as anything by Lorenz Hart, the greatest of all musical comedy lyricists, the shallows in Furth’s book are more than compensated for by such classic Sondheim as the haunting "Sorry-Grateful," "Marry Me a Little," "Being Alive" and the show’s two standout crowd pleasers. "Getting Married Today," a manic tongue-twister brought on by the fear of Jamie’s imminent marriage to Paul and flawlessly delivered by Bailey, and "The Ladies Who Lunch," which finds Broadway veteran LuPone at the very top of her game. It’s a bitingly satirical, deliciously toxic ode to the emptiness of her seen-it-all-before life, and LuPone brings to it a touch of real pizzazz that I have to say I found lacking in Craig’s Bobbie.
Though Craig is a consummate professional with a very good singing voice, that indefinable quality called star eludes her. She does everything right, but I just wish I cared for her more. Her best work is in the number "Barcelona," in which she picks up and seduces Andy (Richard Fleeshman), a somewhat effete, rather camp flight attendant with an amazingly honed body.
Not all the supporting performers are as good as their material, and I found much of Liam Steel’s choreography jerky. He seemed to have worked more on his dancer’s hands than their feet.
Its flaws notwithstanding, this is musical theatre at its sophisticated best and a triumph for Elliott, who with real skill and insight has fashioned a Company for the Me Too generation and nudged the show into the 21st Century.