20 February 2008

Company review

I finally saw a real production of Company on PBS's Great Performance series. This production was from the 2006-2007 Broadway revival. Company originally debuted in 1970 on Broadway.

Company was one of first shows where Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for the songs. The idea for the music came about when George Furth showed Sondheim a bunch of one-act plays he had been writing about marriage. Sondheim consulted his friend director/producer Hal Prince who told them, "Gentleman, it's a musical!" So in the end, Company became a series of sketches about five married couples who are friends with the perennial bachelor Bobby. The sketches are tied together by the emotional development of Bobby. He goes from being a bachelor who is skeptical of marriage to being a man who realizes how much he needs somebody and how commitment is part of what makes a person alive. Historically, Company is considered one of the first (if not the first) "concept" musical. There is no clear plot, but the music and dialogue are centered around a theme. In fact, it's not clear if the events are real or if they are going on in Bobby's head. Bobby blows out his birthday candles three times. Have three birthdays really occurred or does Bobby have a dream about his birthday?

Company is one of my favorite Sondheim shows so far (the others being Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George). It's a show that requires good acting and showcases outstanding acting. The ensemble numbers are beautiful. The Original Broadway Cast recording sounds very 1970s-ish, but John Doyle has updated the music to sound modern and classy. The musical has three of my favorite songs: "Being Alive," "The Ladies Who Lunch," and "Getting Married Today." The show is funny and witty, but it carries a strong message, too. Marriage, in fact any kind of commitment, is a compromise. It sucks that when we choose one path, we close many others, but that's what life is about. Life is about making choices. There's nothing wrong with Bobby being a bachelor. The problem is that it's all he knows. He's never tried anything else. He's never made a choice; he's always waiting to see what other people do. Joanne's stinging number "The Ladies Who Lunch" reminds Bobby (and the audience) that you can sit around wasting your life pretending you're actually living it. Delusion is insidious. There are so many ways to waste time, whether it's going to fittings, taking in high art like Mahler symphonies and Pinter plays, mocking other people, surfing the internet (wait, that's not in the musical...) [I have too many interests and it's so hard to commit to doing just one or two. I'm trying to wean myself off this Sondheim craze, so that I get some research done.]

In the end, Bobby realizes that he can't put off the inevitable. He wants to live a real life and feel real feelings. Hence the song "Being Alive." In a touching finale, he hides from his married friends, blows out his candles, and makes his own wish. He doesn't need his friends anymore. He's had his party and he knows that it's time to leave.

Some people find Company bitterly pessimistic about marriage. I think that's a misconception. First of all, we are seeing the married couples interact from Bobby's point of view. There are never any scenes where the couples are alone on stage (except "Poor Thing" where the couples are commenting on Bobby's non-married state). As Larry (Joanne's husband) says, his wife likes to grandstand in public. She's actually wonderful in private. Of course, since Bobby is a perpetual bachelor, he's looking for reasons why marriage is bad. Second, even though we see marriage depicted in a negative light, it's clear that Sondheim and Furth think that being a playboy is even worse. If commitment at its worst is still better than staying on the sidelines, it's clear what the best choice is.

As for the PBS broadcast, I loved Raul Esparza as Bobby. He played a very calm, sweet guy who gradually becomes more and more distraught about being as an outsider. The New York Times review described him as being icy like the drink perpetually glued to his hand and that as the show went on, he thawed until he exploded at the end. In the second act opening, Raul has a broad smile on his face as he watches his friends march around party-style. Towards the end of the number, two of the couples play solos on their instruments. The husband plays and the wife answers. When it comes to Bobby's turn, he attempts a few notes on a kazoo but no one is there to respond. He just stands there glowering for the rest of the song.

Raul's performance of "Being Alive" is my favorite so far (better than the recording on the original cast album by Dean Jones). I wasn't too crazy about the other performers. They were good, but not outstanding. The New York Times critic (name?) thought that since the the rest of the cast was slightly bland, that it gave more attention to Bobby (in a good way). I could see that. It was a bit disappointing to see my favorite songs "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Getting Married Today" not come off as the showstoppers that they are. Still, who can top Elaine Strich's "Ladies" (one of the most legendary Broadway performances ever) and Madeline Kahn's "Getting Married Today"?

The Company revival was yet another John Doyle production. Doyle's trademark in recent years has been to take old musicals and redo them with the actors doubling as the orchestra. He pulled off this concept previously in the revival of Sweeney Todd to great critical acclaim. I enjoyed the doubling of musicians/actors. It wasn't as gimmicky as I thought it would be. I was amazed that some actors played two different instruments! How do they play with no conductor??

The fact that the instruments were onstage gave the musical a cabaret feel (not that I've ever been to a cabaret show, this is a guess). The cabaret feel was enhanced by the simple, black costumes and mostly bare set. Marriage and relationships are an intimate topic and the intimate setting works wonderfully. The piano was used very effectively. I liked seeing Marta sing while sitting on top of the piano. I liked watching Bobby clumsily climb on top of the piano (emphasizing that he's still a boyish voyeur). I liked how the actor stopped playing the piano and closed the keyboard case just as Barbara Walsh was finishing "The Ladies Who Lunch." I enjoyed seeing the actors walk around marching-band style in "Side by Side by Side".

However, having the actors play instruments wasn't good in all cases. I don't think they added anything to "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." I thought they were downright annoying in "Have I Got a Girl for You." Why would John Doyle have David play the cello while singing "have I got a girl for you"? What was Doyle thinking??

If you missed the PBS broadcast, don't worry. The broadcast will be available on DVD in a few months. I'll certainly be in line for it!

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