Richard Jordan: Company revival shows how respectfully updating the classics can bring great rewards
One of the most remarkable moments watching the current West End revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company is how, within a matter of minutes, you forget that this work was ever written for a leading man.
In this version, Bobby is instead Bobbie, but apart from the update in period, a few small changes and a number of other gender-swapped characters, this new production stays truthful to the original material.
For those watching this musical for the first time, it must feel like it was always written this way. That was the point its director Marianne Elliott used to sway an initially resistant Sondheim to the idea. Seeking his approval, she sent him film footage of the early development workshop and told him the cameraman, unfamiliar with the musical, had assumed the show was written with the protagonist a woman.
While this current production is an important step in gender casting, a previous staging of Company should also be recognised for its diversity in casting Adrian Lester as the lead in Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse production, which subsequently transferred to the West End.
This new Company’s gender-swapped casting could easily have become all about the director gaining notice over the work itself. But Elliott’s care and vision ensures that this is far from being the case. She respects the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – rather than reinventing this 38-year old musical, the production serves the material and staying entirely true to it. By doing so, she also demonstrates both the durability and skill of Sondheim and Furth’s writing.
It’s important to recognise the show’s long-standing success, and the reason it still works so well today, is the strength of its emotional themes. As with any great work of theatre, these provide its backbone and resonate with audiences whatever the decade and whoever is playing the lead.
This West End revival represents a significant time of change for the musical. Sondheim giving permission for the gender-swap of his leading character represents far more than just a casting change for equality. Previously, many musicals were sacrosanct: neither the writers nor their estates would allow any changes to be made.
Upcoming revivals of West Side Story at Manchester Royal Exchange, Leicester Curve and on Broadway will feature new choreography. Previously, original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ estate had almost always insisted that his work be replicated.
This development raises a question over other musicals and whether producers will now push to apply changes to works such as A Chorus Line for which Michael Bennett’s original staging has been mostly replicated in revivals. It’s also a similar question for the many 1980s blockbusters and their multiple global carbon-copy productions.
However, there also needs to be an element of caution. This opportunity for reinvention is a mouthwatering prospect for producers and directors, but it must not be done deliberately to garner column inches, or in a way that risks devaluing the writing.
In the rush to reinvent everything, revivals must not forget the past achievement of previous productions made in casting and staging, potentially ignoring the foundations they laid for the growth of the work.
Following Company’s critical success, a producer somewhere is probably already thinking about updating Tony as Toni in West Side Story, or introducing a secret tryst between the Old Gumbie Cat and Grizabella in Cats. Within this constantly evolving art form, we should not forget or stop learning from the groundbreaking work and vision of musical theatre’s creative greats including Bennett, Robbins, Bob Fosse, Bob Avian, Gillian Lynne, Des McAnuff, Thomas Kail, Harold Prince, Trevor Nunn and many others like them.
It is vital that those working in this industry can watch and learn from some of these creativesʼ revelatory works rather than merely read about them in a book or online.
It’s is also why programmes such as NT Live have a key role to play in the growth and development of our future artists’ own skills and vision.
The current revival of Company illustrates that if you revisit or update a work, then it must serve the writing and always be approached with the right intent, reasons, and decisions taken when doing it. This production is a testament to the fact that if you get this right, the results can prove both thrilling and groundbreaking.