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Sondheim and the City: In a Rethought ‘Company,’ a Woman Wavers

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

LONDON — Bobby was not in the lobby. It was the week before previews began of a much-anticipated revival of “Company,” the 1970 musical that cemented Stephen Sondheim’s reputation as a composer, and the first floor of the Gielgud Theater here was abustle with crew members, costumes and scenery — including the bed on which the protagonist, Bobby, seduces a flight attendant, after which they sing the hypnotic “Barcelona.

But Bobby himself, always somewhat recessive, was now vanished entirely. The ambivalent bachelor ringed by married couples haranguing him to settle down has been replaced by a female Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig and catapulted into the 21st century, in a radical makeover that has given this show, long beloved critically, the sudden sheen of potential commerciality.

Women, after all, buy the vast majority of theater tickets, and unmarried ones have become a larger and increasingly vocal portion of the population.

“I feel a unique challenge to represent that demographic,” said Ms. Craig, who is married. “And I want to do it carefully and with respect, so nobody feels patronized, or that Bobbie’s a victim or anything like that.”

The new “Company” is the latest in a wave of gender-conscious reconsiderations of well-established musicals, “My Fair Lady” and “Oklahoma!” among them, with the advantage that Mr. Sondheim was around to offer his blessing, and his help.

And why shouldn’t it prove popular with modern audiences, like so many previous tableaus of urban singletons? “It has lots of elements of Bridget Jones to it,” Ms. Elliott said, sitting on a love seat “side by side,” as the song goes, with her producing partner, Chris Harper, during a break in technical rehearsals. “It has lots of elements of ‘Sex and the City.’ And it has lots of elements of ‘Friends’ to it.”

A versatile talent fresh from staging a highly lauded revival of “Angels in America” on both sides of the Atlantic, Ms. Elliott might be the only person in show business to draw a direct line from “Friends,” the blockbuster 1990s television series recently rediscovered by teenagers on Netflix, to the libretto of “Company,” a seminal Me Decade text by George Furth. The two works share “really kind of smart sassy characters who are very dry-witted,” she said. “In a quite New York way.”

Drier than a sauvignon blanc, more New York than the Yankees, “Company” has, since its initial run, assumed an important if slightly veiled berth in the Sondheim canon. A consummate ensemble piece lacking a movie adaptation — though Furth, who died in 2008, wrote a two-page treatment for one that Ms. Elliott said had helped inform her interpretation — it is not a household name like “Into the Woods” or “Sweeney Todd.” The title, a somewhat dated synonym for guests, neatly conjures the insularity of a theatrical troupe.

And yet thanks to YouTube and the high-octane striving of Elaine Stritch, who originated the role of Bobby’s jaded friend Joanne, a documentary made by D.A. Pennebaker of the original cast album recording session has gathered a cult following of Gen Xers and millennials, inspiring a 2013 parody, “One’s Company,” and another scheduled to air on the Independent Film Channel next year.

Encapsulating the seesawing ennui and excitement of city life, numbers such as “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which was explicitly tailored for Stritch, and “Another Hundred People” have become cabaret classics.

The show is cherished in the West End, where, under Hal Prince’s direction, it played at Her Majesty’s Theater for 344 performances in 1972. It was revived by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in 1995, with an African-American Bobby, Adrian Lester. The latter production captivated Mr. Harper, a single father who first thought of a female Bobby after repeatedly listening to the character’s signature ballad, “Being Alive,” after the premature birth of his twins via a surrogate.

The notion made immediate sense to Ms. Elliott. “The character is a people-pleaser,” she said. “The character wants to help and provide for all of her friends and try to make everything work for them all the time, to the negation of herself, which feels like kind of a feminine trait.”

The advent of egg-freezing notwithstanding, the double standard still persists. “I know a lot of women — and I remember being in that situation myself — who have a very nice career, have friends, have partners but their biological clock is ticking,” Ms. Elliott said. “Everybody starts to think when they’re heading toward being 40: ‘Mmm, that’s a shame they’re not with anyone.’”

With gestures like making one of the husbands, David, a stay-at-home father, she is coaxing out feminist elements always latent in “Company” — most powerfully in Joanne’s exhortation to anesthetized housewives: “Everybody rise!”

Ms. Elliott considered making Bobbie bisexual, puzzling over how to handle the character’s offhanded proposal to Amy, a friend whose cold feet at the altar provoke the virtuosically jittery patter song “(Not) Getting Married Today.”

“If Bobbie’s a woman and Amy’s a woman, she’s proposing to a woman, which we thought theoretically would be fine — why not?” Ms. Elliott said. “But we tried that in the workshop, and it was just one of those ‘Whooo — I’m not sure I fully believe this’ moments.’”

After much thought and experimentation, Amy became Jamie, a gay man played by Jonathan Bailey, in a conceit that recalls another popular hit, the 1997 movie “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

“And that just felt so very truthful,” Mr. Harper said. “’Cause I’m a gay man and I’ve got so many amazing beautiful female friends, and we’ve both said to each other ‘Look, if we don’t find that perfect partner by the time we’re whatever, let’s you and I get married.’”

The conversion of Amy to Jamie has also enabled the new “Company” to integrate a gay story line that many long suspected was subtextual, if not central; why else, it was wondered back in the day, would Bobby be facing down his 35th birthday still a bachelor?

The show’s creators long denied this possibility, and though Mr. Sondheim explored the concept of an all-male cast with the director John Tiffany in 2013, a banner year for marriage equality, the project was ultimately vetoed.

This was different. “It’s a little blush-making, but I admire Marianne so much that if she said she’d wanted to turn him into a dog, I’d probably go ahead and do it,” Mr. Sondheim said in a promotional video for the production last year, vowing “to try and get into the female psyche” during their collaboration. “Getting into a female psyche is a whole other matter, particularly a contemporary woman.” (Mr. Sondheim declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he was busy at work on his new musical.)

This is not the first time he has tweaked “Company” to reflect changing mores. The rhyme “bag/fag” in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” common lingo in 1970, became “away/gay” in the 1990s. More complicated was the entire transposition of this pastiche number, originally sung by a trio of Bobby’s girlfriends, for a trio of Bobbie’s boyfriends.

“One of the great strokes of genius is that these women who are complaining about Bobby find this chirpy optimistic style of singing to basically say that Bobby is a jerk,” Joel Fram, Ms. Elliott’s music supervisor and a onetime Yale Whiffenpoof, said. “And so when we were exploring this number we realized that three men pretending to be the Andrews Sisters really wasn’t the answer, so I started looking at the male groups from the ’40s and the ’50s: The Modernaires, The Hi-Lo’s, The Williams Brothers, The Four Aces.”

Technological developments have also affected the update of “Company,” arguably the first significant musical of the Information Age. The opening bars of the original cast recording are overlaid with a telephone’s busy signal, a sound unintelligible to digital natives who have the beep of Call Waiting, if they make conversation over a receiver at all.

Ms. Elliott has chosen to find instead in that insistent beat the biological clock, which conveniently echoes in “Tick-Tock,” formerly the coital bedroom instrumental of a committed playboy. (A crying baby is another new audio fillip.) The lyric “Look I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain,” a reference to the now-antique live answering service in “Another Hundred People,” now ends “or I’ll text you to explain.”

Smartphones and laptops make fleeting appearances, as indispensable instruments of current mating habits. (Indeed, what are Tinder and Bumble if not “another hundred people,” available in a single swipe?)

“It’s about being exposed to so much choice — that could be a bad thing, or perhaps in this case it could also be a good thing,” said Mr. Fram, to whom the layered, staccato opening number, during which the friends propose various activities, seems “as if we are looking at all 31 days of Bobbie’s iCal all at once.”

The show’s strongest tether to the past other than Mr. Sondheim himself is Patti LuPone, reinhabiting the role of Joanne, a functioning alcoholic, that she previously performed in a 2011 concert version with the New York Philharmonic, directed by Lonny Price and starring Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby.

Ms. LuPone knew Furth socially and worked with him on a one-woman play about a radio host that never got off the ground. “A very open, welcoming, gracious man — but all over the place, boom boom boom boom boom boom,” she said in her dressing room between scenes, wearing a black cocktail dress, high-heeled sandals and a heavy bracelet. (She had sworn off musicals after “War Paint” “because I’m too old and they’re too hard — I’m tired, I’m physically tired,” but felt compelled to work with Ms. Elliott.)

Ms. LuPone also knew Stritch, a proto-Bobbie herself, who remained unmarried until she was in her late 40s, inspired at least one of the one-act vignettes that were the basis for “Company” and regularly discussed with Furth the twinned aggravation and appeal of living alone.

“Elaine looms because Elaine looms,” Ms. LuPone said of the challenge of playing a character so closely identified with another star, which she has previously conquered following Ethel Merman in the leading role of “Anything Goes,” Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd” and both in “Gypsy.”

Moreover, Joanne has changed as well under Ms. Elliott’s guidance. In relation to Bobbie rather than Bobby, she becomes more caring mentor than callous seductress. “Somebody that’s a role model,” Ms. LuPone said. “Joanne is the one that tells her ‘Don’t think that you have to get married. Just be yourself.’”

Could this once-most-masculine of musicals, conceived by the boys’ club of Furth, Prince and Sondheim, possibly flourish in the #MeToo era as a declaration of … sisterhood?

Ms. Craig, who previously played one of Bobby’s girlfriends, Marta (now P.J.), in a Sheffield Crucible version of “Company,” is radiant with the possibility. “I genuinely feel as if it’s a new show,” she said.

Preparing for the lead part, she said she’d gone out and bought “a whole stack of books about females — where we fit now in society, what we want out of careers, singledom.

“And then I just thought, ‘I don’t even need to look.’ It’s my friendship group, it’s my contemporaries, it’s my families, it’s my everything. People constantly asking: ‘Why aren’t you married?’ ‘What are you going to do about having children?’ ‘Gosh, you’re getting on a bit!’”

Nor did she study the many previous iterations of the character, from Dean Jones and Larry Kert in the original, to Mr. Lester and Mr. Harris, to Raul Esparza in the most recent Broadway revival. “They’re incomparable,” Ms. Craig said. “There would be no point. I feel like we’ve built a new Bobbie from the ground up.”


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