In 1970, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim had a show called ‘Company’ open on Broadway which, unusually for him, caught the tone of the times. The hippy era was ending, the swingers had swung and commitment loomed. ‘Company’ was a musical comedy presented in a fugue state, taking place between an intake of breath and its exhalation as the hero Bobby blew out 35 candles on his birthday cake and wondered why he was still alone and disconnected.
Bobby was single, a blank, a sounding board for his friends and their married foibles. He sees their vignettes of their messy lives and feels excluded, but can’t fix himself to care or commit. He needs to break through, from New York, from his friendships, and want something. ‘Company’ was accessible yet still experimental, with no formal plot and blackout scenes. There’s drink and dope and sex, and it’s all very ‘now’.
At least, it was back then, nearly half a century ago.
I saw the original production at Her Majesty’s with Larry Kert, Donna McKechnie and Elaine Stritch, and Boris Aaronson’s startling chrome and glass elevator set. It was the time of the three-day week and rolling blackouts. The second half was hit by a power cut and performed with torches. I didn’t care. It was my first Sondheim, which for a writer with little interest in lyrics up until then, was a game-changer.
Time was not kind to ‘Company’. It was a modest hit and became a staple, then a warhorse. It dated badly. It was performed with gimmicks – see the cast play their own instruments! Finally it ceased to work and became irrelevant. What it needed was an overhaul, or it would be lost like certain other Sondheim works.
Enter director Marianne Elliott of ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. What if the piece could be made relevant again? It would need major changes and rewrites. Sondheim, now 88, had to be persuaded to allow them, but he admired Elliot.
What kick-starts ‘Company’ back to life is a major gender-swap. Bobby is now female – Bobbi, and crazy Amy, who’s ‘not getting married today’, is now a male couple. Female trios become male. Male solos become female. But Broadway legend Patti Lupone still gets the 11 o’clock number, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’. The song ‘Barcelona’, written for a ditzy flight attendant, now has a gender swap that reveals a new interpretation; Bobbi is prepared to seduce a man who’s obviously gay. Their bed stories, which once slowed down the pace, are now horribly apt. Nothing feels shoe-horned in, everything is organic and natural.
With new instrumental links that set the sound of a ticking clock over Bobbi’s biological one, there’s a new urgency to her search for commitment, and she gets a restored ballad. The NYC-evoking set is brilliant – a series of boxes that shunt, drop, grow and fade, catching the flavour of rushed city life.
One thing had to go – McKechnie’s ‘sex dance’, a visual representation of Bobbi’s bedroom flings that nightly stopped the show but came to seem crass. Replacing it is a dazzling piece of theatrical sleight-of-hand that advances Bobbi’s character while giving the audience something to marvel at. There’s also a pointed Millennial tone that catches the zeitgeist; I went with a female friend who felt she had just seen her life staged. It’s no gimmick; everything works. This is perhaps how the play should always be seen.
Go if you’re in London, before the word gets out. The official opening is in two weeks.