Company Revival Finds New Depth

A woman stands center stage as her friends surround her. They are wearing party hats and a large balloon '35' is behind them all.

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (center) and the North American Tour of COMPANY. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

In his 2010 memoir and lyric collection, Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim wrote of his surprise at the reception of Company in 1970: “I had no idea Company would be so unsettling to public and critics alike.” He was “stunned by the polarized reactions of fervent admiration and ferocious rejection” when the somewhat experimental production premiered.

The play derived from a group of brief one-act plays written in the late 1960s by actor and playwright George Furth. Sondheim and Furth merged the scenes into a musical built around a single urban man with an emotionally empty life and a distinct fear of marriage. Nothing much happens in the story, just a display of neurotic antics around a surprise 35th birthday party. The action takes place inside the mind of the main character, Bobby.

Lacking the usual linear plot, Company was a new form, labeled (not by Sondheim) the “concept musical.”

“As far as I know,” Sondheim wrote, “prior to Company there had never been a plotless musical which dealt with one set of characters from start to finish. In 1970, the contradictory aspect of the experiment (a story without a plot) was cause for both enthusiasm and dismay.”

The revival half a century later has stunned audiences once again by making the central character a female. More than just a gender-bending rewrite, with the male Bobby now a female Bobbie, the revival switches up ancillary characters as well and finds new depth. British director Marianne Elliott’s Tony Award-winning production has been hailed as revelatory.

Matt Rodin who plays Jamie in the touring production, said what’s so remarkable about Sondheim and Furth’s work is that 50 years after its inception, “the messages and ideas are still deeply relevant. What it means to be in relationship with another person, the messiness of marriage, and the dance of compromise all hit home in the same way they did in the ’70s – maybe even more so now.

“I think that’s not only because we’re more open to discussing marriage and partnership as a society, but this new production has adapted the material in a way that resonates today. Gender flipping Bobbie, Jamie, the boyfriends, and a handful of the other couples’ dynamics paints a more vivid picture of life as we know it. A single woman at 35 has a lot more pressure than a single man at 35. In this production, the wives (particularly Jenny and Susan) lean more stable and clear headed, while the husbands (David and Peter) are buttoned up and anxious. We get to see Company through a 21st century lens, and it’s brighter than ever.”

Given the culture’s heightened expectations for women regarding marriage and children, the gender switch adds meaning. Additionally, in the revival, the wedding-day panic attack is sung by gay male Jamie, rather than straight female Amy in the original, underscoring that gay marriage may be legal but fear of commitment is universal.

Actor Rodin said, “This role is an incredible blessing because Jamie gets an arc of his own. At the end of show, right before Bobbie’s final turn in ‘Being Alive,’ Jamie speaks to her from the other side of commitment. He tells her that everything is going to be okay; that being in relationship with another person is actually a gateway to a deeper part of ourselves and our shared humanity. And miraculously, for the first time, she listens.”

The score remains among Sondheim’s best, from the wise, heartrending “Being Alive” to the urban anonymity anthem “Another Hundred People” to the zinger made famous by Elaine Stritch, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

For fans of the original Company, the challenge of seeing the reversed emotional roles is newly rewarding.

“Theater, at its best, provokes questions instead of providing answers,” cast member Rodin said. “This version asks even more questions than the original, and for the better.

“The payoff is an audience, and a company of actors, that feel more seen, understood, and moved. We leave with questions unanswered. And I don’t think theater gets much better than that.”

May 22-June 2 • Buell Theatre