Fifty-three years ago, “Company” premiered as a collection of clever songs in search of comparable meaning surrounding them. Bobby was turning thirty-five and single in a world of couples. The pressure was on from his married friends at his surprise birthday party to make the plunge. But Bobby not only did not have somebody, but observing the dysfunctional relationships of the couples around him across a series of vignettes, only served to alienate him even further from the notion of commitment.
It was Sondheim’s first truly Sondheimesque musical, where he wrote both words and music in a cohesive style: witticisms set to his own musical scaffolding that served as miniature backgrounds and frames. The dialogue that surrounded these never reached the same level but, early on, the compactness of the show made that less obvious. Over the decades, dialogue was added, songs were reordered. “Company” became overcrowded.
Since marriage doesn’t have the same cultural significance that it did in 1970, how to make a show—one that Elaine Stritch, the original Joanne in the show, once described as “Hair” if it were written by Noel Coward—relevant in a new millennium?
Reverse gender, of course. “Bobbie” is now a female looking at thirty-five without marriage or prospects. And though it is never mentioned, she is Black, in a world of mostly white friends. No dialogue has been changed, there is no talk of a biological clock. The reversal of gender assumes that marriage is the same experience for men and women, straight or gay, Black or white. That may be the hope and the ideal, but is it the reality?
A few months after Sondheim died, I was in New York and went to the Broadway incarnation of this “Company” out of respect for the fact that it was the last production of one of his own shows that Sondheim ever saw, only days before his passing. I enjoyed it very much, though the production’s Bobbie—Katrina Lenk—was out with COVID and her understudy Britney Coleman stepped in. She was amazing.
Coleman is now the lead of the national tour that opened last Wednesday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. But her portrayal then and now couldn’t be more different. There was confidence and swagger on Broadway. This Bobbie is more tentative, more nuanced. An interpretive choice to suggest Bobbie is having none of the propaganda her friends are handing her and is remaining her own person?
The New York staging had the orchestra on the upper half of the stage, fully lit and visible, conductor and all. The frames so central to the look of the show were always underneath. Here, the upper half of the stage is black and empty space with a much smaller band down in the pit.
The cast of this national tour is quite fine, but unlike the New York incarnation, I never bought that this was a group of really close friends. The intimacy just isn’t there. Perhaps it will come.
That said, many of the elements that make this such an effective production are here, especially the strong staging that make this “Company” worth keeping.
“Company” at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com. Through November 12.