Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by John Doyle
Starring Raul Esparza
Barrymore Theatre / 243 West 47th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer
I've lost count of the number of productions of Company I've seen, but I can tell you this much: there has not been one of them, pro or amateur, that I've liked anywhere near as much as the Broadway original in 1970, nor has there been one that has made the case that, despite its always invigorating and trail-blazing score by Stephen Sondheim, its book by George Furth is not horribly dated, and very much a product of its era.
Understand, I admired British director John Doyle's Sweeney Todd without wholehearted endorsement, because I thought the conceit of a reduced number cast playing their own musical accompaniment on various instruments often sacrificed narrative sense for theatrical effect. An uneasy trade-off, to be sure. And I did wonder if this device—which is not project-specific for Doyle, but rather, his signature, where works of musical theatre are concerned—was worth repetition.
The revelation was discovering that at least for Doyle, at least for now, the signature is not a one-size-fits-all glove, but rather a language he tries to re-invent each time out. And realizing that—in that alchemical way of the right people in the right room with the right material, beggaring analysis of anything but chemistry—Doyle's language just happens to encompass the fresh approach Company has needed for decades. It's not the device itself, of course, that adds the spark, but rather the ways in which Doyle applies it to exploit symbolism, metaphor and simple emotional underpinning in the material. As boldly, he has decided not to present this "examination of marriage and contemporary relationships in New York City" (to coin a buzz-phrase) as a period piece, but rather to set it in the present, ignoring, deleting or (with the contributions of the authors) subtly revising the few lines or locutions that would otherwise anchor it to the 70s. What makes this courageous, of course, is that there's a lot more involved in rendering Company immediate than that. Monkey with details all you like, you're still dealing with a sensibility, a point of view, a reflection of late 60s/early 70s culture that seeps into the very fabric of the material.
But Doyle's solution here has been to use his signature device as a vehicle for—I don't know how else to describe it—reweaving the fabric. In deconstructing the piece to find where the application of performers-as-musicians is most dramatically and amusingly effective, he has managed to reconstruct it such that there's a different weave to it. Company was always a cool-ish slow, unsentimental and clever (despite its ballad stopovers like "Sorry/Grateful", "Someone is Waiting" and "Being Alive"), but Doyle has ramped up the octane on its edginess. It's no longer a comedy of sharp observation from the outside in, it's now—or now also—about a sharply painful rite-of-passage viewed from the inside out. Before I explicate that, a sidebar:
Most of you probably know that the show follows a nominal hero, single and desirable Bobby, newly 35, as he observes the five married couples that are his closest friends, as well as the relationships he has with three interesting, idiosyncratic women, none of whom he can commit to. As you may also know, the show began as a series of related one acts by George Furth about marriage; original director Harold Prince read them at Sondheim's behest (Sondheim at this point merely having passed on the manuscript as a favor to Furth), Prince surprised Sondheim by thinking they would be the basis of a swell musical—and long story short, Bobby was created after the fact, as a linking device.
This has always somewhat plagued the part of Bobby, because having been created as more of a functional point of view than a fully formed character with a dynamic internal life, he has always been a bit of a cipher, making emotional transitions that aren't really supported by a dramatized struggle—only the suggestion of one. Subsequently, many wonderful players have taken on the role, but none has been able to make it his own, at best only able to brand it if he had enough of his own star persona to inject into it. There are mixed reactions from those who saw Dean Jones for the two weeks he stayed with the show after its New York opening (though he clearly possesses the songs, his original cast album performance never having been matched); but his replacement Larry Kert was bland (the London edition of the cast album, on which Jones was mixed down [you can still hear him faintly in the reverb bleed] and Kert was overdubbed preserves the contrast for all time). Kert's standby, John Cunningham (who usually played the role of married man Peter) made a much stronger impression as a kind of man's man—but again, it was his own personality coming to the fore, and he was only seen by a fortunate minority (then he left Company to replace William Daniels as John Adams in 1776); and immediately in the wake of the Broadway closing, there was a Music Fair bus and truck tour, for theatre-in-the-round, in which 60s TV leading man George Maharis proved a revelation—he had that star thing, plus sophisticated musicality quite at home with the complexities and demands of a Sondheim score, and the role molded to him so beautifully that it seemed an inextricable part of him; his own charisma filled in the emotional blanks the scene writing didn't. (For historical sticklers, this bus and truck tour with George Maharis is not to be confused with the official national tour of the show, which starred George Chakiris.)
But in this new, current production, director John Doyle and his Robert, Raul Esparza, have done something rather daring. Previously, Robert was portrayed as confused, bewildered, unsure—"soft" qualities as also exemplified in the "soft" writing of his scenes. If he wasn't precisely a neutral observer, he was one who had come to no conclusions; if he wasn't always avuncular he was at least always an accommodating Player. But Esparza starts out angry, his easy fa_ade a thin mask for growing hostility. And the hostility, of course, is about fear. As he weaves in and out of the lives of his "good and crazy" married friends, he clocks the imperfections in the relationships, clearly mourning the fact that, one way or another, each relationship is fucked up; and fighting the subtle truth beneath, which is the imperfections are, in a way, what it's about—a level of intimacy that makes room for them, even peace with them. Robert doesn't want to be that fully "known"; or to know anyone else so fully; for do so is to be utterly vulnerable. And the Esparza Robert struggles to stay closed.
But that stance feeds the feeling of emptiness, and slowly the fa_ade starts to crack.
None of this is articulated. The script makes a bit of it implicit, but the bulk of it is brought to the table by Doyle and Esparza themselves. The magic of it is that it turns Robert's passivity into something active, makes the emotional journey one that can be tracked (at least viscerally) by the audience, and in reflecting a universal truism oft examined in modern day life and culture, takes the curse of datedness off the material. That alone would be a spectacular achievement. But the renovation does one thing more, just as phenomenal.
It makes the role of Bobby one that an actor can finally own, because it provides a series of palpable "handles" to grip onto. It anchors the role and makes Bobby more than merely an authors' vehicle for delivering the message.
And that makes Bobby "replaceable." Don't get me wrong, Esparza is doing a fantastic job, the choices true and surgically precise, the singing as deeply felt as it is beautifully interpreted. But the next fellow, if similarly skilled, can land as well, because where there used to be a vague progression, there is now a template for specific development. You simply can't underestimate the magnitude of the choice.
And it resonates with every member of the well-chosen cast, and finds its reflection too in the truly miraculous new orchestrations by Mary Mitchell Campbell.
Company, when it first opened, was like nothing you had ever seen before. You knew, watching it, that musical theatre had irrevocably changed, had newly matured in language, in subject matter, in musical range—but in having been rendered less relevant with the passage of time (even the liner notes in the re-mastered original cast CD are merciless about pointing this out), its impact became almost an academic myth to those too young to have been there. They could trust the evidence of the score, of description, the insistence of historical record...but it was all second hand assurance.
Now, though, for maybe the first time, a fire equivalent to the original is burning. Its own thing, make no mistake, and not the original. But a production with the roaring, convincing confidence of the original. A production with the boldness of imprint to inspire the phrase:
"Oh, that's what the hell they were talking about, all these years!"
And that's what it's all about, isn't it...?