The thrilling new gender-swapped production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, opening now on Broadway, will give you at least two reasons to be grateful to Sondheim’s memory in the weeks after his death at age 91. Or, as the man himself would have put it, it will give you reasons to be sorry-grateful.
First, you can be grateful that Sondheim wrote Company at all. Originally staged on Broadway in 1970, Company is considered the first concept musical. It’s a show without a plot, with only meditations on a theme; in this case, marriage. In addition to an acidic book by George Furth, it contains some of Sondheim’s most soaringly beautiful ballads (“Being Alive”), arguably his best cabaret standard (“Ladies Who Lunch”), and almost certainly his most infuriatingly clever rhyme (“personable/coercin’ a bull”).
Second, you can be grateful Sondheim made such a habit of signing off on ambitious or outré new stagings of some of his most beloved work. Company is the show that made Sondheim’s reputation as a genius of musical theater, but he seemed to hold no desire to be precious about it. Just as he signed off on a Sweeney Todd set in a mental institution where the audience was served real meat pies, he went ahead and okayed director Marianne Elliott’s idea to turn the toxic bachelor Bobby at the center of Company into a flippant feminine Bobbie.
The result is the gold standard for any major adaptation of a major work. This new Company is so good, you can’t help thinking that it might work better than the original.
Bobbie (Katrina Lenk) is turning 35 years old as the play begins, and her age weighs heavily on her mind. Single and surrounded by married friends, she feels immense pressure to decide what her future is going to look like. Is she going to be alone forever? Is she going to have a baby? Is she going to get married? One? Both? Neither?
The number 35 chases her across Bunny Christie’s clever interlocking sets. On a New York City block, every house is number 35. A living room features a stylized 35 over the couch as wall art. In a kitchen, the analog clock hands point to 3:05. A clock ticktocks ominously in the background, and sometimes a baby can be heard wailing. Bobbie’s friends bicker in a constant stream about whether or not she should find someone or whether she’s perfect as she is or whether her boyfriends are worthy of her. When she’s in bed with one boyfriend, all of her friends’ husbands come into her room to serenade her with their thoughts on why she shouldn’t be with him.
The male Bobby is classically played as a hollow shell of a person searching for something to fill him up — but Lenk’s sardonic, flirty, and deeply charismatic Bobbie is already her own person. She’s simply terrified both by the idea of not having a man and child and by the idea of being trapped taking care of them, and she can’t decide which scares her more. When her boyfriends coo in lilting harmony, “She’s a troubled person, she’s a truly crazy person,” she flinches in genuine humiliation. Then she has a nightmare about being trapped in a never-ending cycle of housework and child care.
Still, Bobbie has a rich appreciation for the ridiculous in life. When her married friends launch into another needy stunt — an impromptu jiujitsu match, a speech on the joys of cohabitating as a divorced pair — Bobbie is always ready with a cocked eyebrow and a smirk. Her ally here is her older friend Joanne, who seems to appear every time Bobbie’s feeling particularly cynical to exchange side-eyes and clink cocktail glasses.
Joanne has always been one of Company’s most important players, an imperious old broad working on her third husband between grim-faced demands for another drink. Her solo “Ladies Who Lunch” stops the show every time, and it’s Joanne who eventually spurs Bobby/ie on to their final epiphanies about life, love, and company.
But in Elliott’s production, Joanne goes from important to vital. Her relationship with Bobbie becomes a sort of nihilistic mentorship, Bobbie hanging on to Joanne’s stories with wide-eyed awe and Joanne preening herself over her own outrageousness. It’s also a warning. When Joanne starts in on the final verse of “Ladies Who Lunch,” toasting the girls who “just watch,” who stay on the sidelines of life with their drinks and their brilliant zingers, she turns to look Bobbie straight in the eye. They both know exactly who Joanne is singing about now.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Joanne is played by living legend Patti LuPone. LuPone has played this part before, most prominently in a 2011 production with Neil Patrick Harris, but that doesn’t stop her now from finding new layers of vitriol and suppressed pain in Joanne’s every bon mot. There’s a moment toward the end where she enters sitting at a bar table, looming hugely up out of a cloud of fog, motionless in a fur coat and sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, and you could just about die from the theater of it all.
Thank goodness for Lenk, who has the miraculous strength of personality it takes to stand up to Lupone in full Broadway diva mode and keep the show balanced. Lenk has an easy, naturalistic way with Furth’s often stagy dialogue, and she manages to put across every single joke that should have died in 1970. While she lacks the vocal range Sondheim’s score demands, she can talk a song like no one’s business, and she knows how to turn her defects into assets. Every time her breath can’t quite support her as she reaches for a note, she finds a reason for Bobbie’s voice to break from emotion, and she makes it feel natural.
As the supporting cast churns busily about the stage around Bobbie and Joanne, there are a few standouts. Matt Doyle puts across the notoriously tricky rat-a-tat patter song “(Not) Getting Married Today” with absolutely precise timing, and Jennifer Simard makes a comic meal out of the tiny role of Sarah, the jiujitsu-loving wife.
But most often, this ensemble shines as a, well, company. They’re forever chiming, “Bobbie, baby! Bobbie, honey!” from the back of the stage as Bobbie tries to go about her business, and while she pretends it doesn’t bother her, she finally cracks. “Marry me,” she says to her gay friend, almost joking, “and then everyone will finally leave us alone.”
And you think, “This must have just been written for a woman and a gay man. It doesn’t make sense any other way!”
One of Sondheim’s greatest gifts was to write a show so layered and so meaty that whatever context you see it in, it will feel tailor-made for that moment in time, as though no one could have ever done it any other way — right up until the next time you see it done some other way. He found collaborators who were willing and excited to change his work.
Marianne Elliott’s Company will remind you of both. It will leave you sorry-grateful, regretful-happy.