Musicals before Company tended to have more of a plot. Maybe someone fell in love with a member of a rival gang, or took a missionary to Havana, or ditched the nunnery for a captain in the Austro-Hungarian navy. But written in 1970, Stephen Sondheim’s “first distinctively mature work”, according to biographer David Benedict, turned musical theatre into a genre in and of itself. What genre is Sweeney Todd? Horror. Into the Woods? Fairytale. But Company’s genre is musical. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a theme.
Together with George Furth, Sondheim developed a concept musical, based on nine one-act plays by Furth, about a single man in his 30s surrounded by married friends. On the surface, it might seem that the show is too tied to its setting – “New York City, NOW” is the stage direction that starts the 1970 libretto – to still be relevant. Yet so much of what Furth and Sondheim were attempting to articulate has only intensified. “The increasing difficulty of making emotional connections in an increasingly dehumanised society” is what Sondheim said the show was about. That was 48 years ago.
Meanwhile, increased communication has bred isolation, singlehood and divorce have become normalised, and the pressure of being single is in constant battle against the difficulties of being in a relationship. A clever revival could really dig into what those themes mean right now. Marianne Elliott has gone beyond that. Her neon-flooded, gender-bended production is more a reinvention than a revival – and it’s a revelation. Bobby, male in the original, is female Bobbie here.
Some of the couples that surround her have had their roles swapped too – David has become a stay-at-home dad rather than a career man – and there are same-sex couples too. When the idea of rebalancing the show in favour of women struck Elliott, she was determined not to do it unless she could make it work. Sondheim has usually been reticent about people messing with his babies, but he gave his blessing here, and even worked with Elliott on revising the book.
The director’s touch in terms of the gender-swapping is incredibly light. Pronouns are changed, as are a few lyrics, but these are small shifts. They have profound results, though: the show has become fundamentally different. It feels like it could have been written yesterday, rather than 48 years ago, and is contemporary right down to the Starbucks keep-cups that characters drink from. Every modification makes sense, and finds a new resonance. Neurotic and cold-footed bride-to-be Amy is now Jamie, not quite ready to marry Paul. You Could Drive a Person Crazy becomes a barbershop trio, Whiffenpoofs-style, and behind the buoyant music are three awful men hiding their awfulness with sweet voices.
Company has always been full of fragments and shards, from the jabbing staccatos of the opening bars to the splinters of lines that make up many of the lyrics: “Will you pick me up / Or do I meet you there / Or shall we let it go?” from Another Hundred People. It’s like standing still on a busy street and hearing disconnected lines from the phone calls of people walking by.
Beyond the inspired concept, Elliott directs each moment brilliantly on Bunny Christie’s colourful and luminescent set made of box apartments sliding in and out, up and down. Every song is a set piece, some married to magnificent routines and illusions, such as Side by Side by Side performed with frantic party games, others left bare – what else could you do with a song as good as Being Alive? Sorry-Grateful, another stunning bit of music and lyricism, is also sung straight. Gavin Spokes joins Richard Henders and Ben Lewis for this song about the extremes of marriage, both threnody and celebration, and it’s chillingly, tenderly beautiful.
Mel Giedroyc plays the most Mel Giedroyc role ever as Spokes’ wife Sarah, her overly big smiles hiding recriminations against her husband, while Richard Fleeshman is a highlight as casual boyfriend Andy, particularly at the centre of the instrumental Tick-Tock. Usually a sensual dance, Elliott turns it into a whirl of body doubles and a bleak look at Bobbie’s alternate futures while her biological clock is counting down the seconds.
Throughout, Rosalie Craig makes Bobbie a kind of perplexed outsider. She observes the weirdnesses and compromises of her friends’ married lives. They sing the songs, but she stays on the outside. She’s a bright blot on the stage in a red dress, but remains almost characterless, protected by a hard shell. The control with which she breaks out of that shell is astonishing. It dissolves, partially at first, for Marry Me a Little as she goes halfway towards the idea of letting someone in. And, finally, fully for Being Alive, as her scorn at the sacrifice of what marriage means (“Someone to sit in your chair / And ruin your sleep”) turns into a desperate wish: “Somebody sit in my chair / And ruin my sleep / And make me aware/ Of being alive.”
Few can beat Elaine Stritch’s Joanne, the bitter old broad on her third (or is it fourth?) marriage, downing vodka stingers like they’re going out of style. But if anyone can make the role her own, it’s Patti LuPone. With Bobbie as a woman, Joanne becomes a kind of protector. It’s almost as if Craig gives her Bobbie a few Joanne-ish traits at points – the cynical scowl – suggesting Bobbie could turn into Joanne if she’s not careful.
Furth’s book has some fantastic lines, and of course the witticisms in Sondheim’s lyrics flow and flow, but Elliott adds a whole new layer of comedy. Getting Married Today becomes a phenomenally absurd farce in a matter of minutes. The song is already funny, but it’s made even more so as the celebrant pops up in different places from the set and Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie races through the lines. For all the many serious things this newly alive Company has to say, Elliott crams as many visual gags into it as possible, with fantastic illusions by Chris Fisher.
A sense of fun prevails, from Bobbie’s apartment shrinking and expanding to shape-shifting body doubles. What do you call a revival that makes a show seem brand new? Company 2018 is more than a clever concept. Elliott has managed to take a 48-year-old musical that spoke to its time and made it speak precisely to us, now. Stephen Sondheim and Marianne Elliott unite for an astonishing reinvention of a classic musical