How Stephen Sondheim shaped the 'Company' Broadway revival
The show's Tony-winning cast and creators share how the late composer's input influenced how it looks on stage today.
Whether you've seen multiple Company productions or none at all since its premiere in 1970, you'll get a fresh, new story out of the latest Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical. The production, directed by Tony Award winner Marianne Elliott, became the winningest musical of the 2021-22 Broadway season with five Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. It's now running at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through July 31.
Elliott's vision centers on the concept of the lead character, Bobby, a 35-year-old commitment-phobe, instead becoming Bobbie, a woman (Katrina Lenk). The original character already felt pressure from his married friends to settle down, but Bobbie's pressure is doubled by the societal expectations of a woman to marry and have kids before her biological clock runs out. A persistent ticking in the background of the show emphasizes this, as does the subtle presence of the number 35 in nearly every set.
The production had its 2018 world premiere in London before transferring to Broadway, when Sondheim was still alive. He was closely involved every step of the way, from the early days of development right up to his passing in November 2021, mere weeks after Company's opening night on Broadway. Deadline recently released emails between Elliott and Sondheim where they first talked through Elliott's proposed changes.
But Elliott wasn't the only one Sondheim worked closely with. He collaborated directly with cast and creative team members alike as they put a fresh twist on the story and even brought forth some of his own ideas for the show that hadn't made it on stage before.
For example, Sondheim championed the set design of Bunny Christie, who went on to win the Best Scenic Design of a Musical Tony Award for her work. Her set comprises multiple neon-rimmed boxes, beginning with a tiny one for Bobbie's apartment kitchen, where her friends throw her a surprise party. Bobbie moves between boxes — others include mid-sized and larger ones for her friends' living rooms and stoops — via various doors and hatches, giving her world an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland feel.
"I remember [Sondheim] coming into the rehearsal room and seeing the box, and when everybody got into that small box and they were singing 'Company,' he started crying. And I thought that was the end of my career, Elliott recalled. "And then he said, 'No, no, no, this is exactly what I had originally imagined. It was extremely claustrophobic. All of her friends in the back, and everybody's storming into her room and crushing her in there.' That was exactly what he thought of when he wrote it."
The set design — or sometimes lack thereof, when Bobbie or others step out of a box and fade in and out of an otherwise dark, empty stage — also supports Sondheim's original idea for the musical. Company plays out as a series of vignettes where Bobbie's married friends each give her a different perspective on marriage, and Sondheim told Elliott that he envisioned all that happening "all in Bobbie's head, and it probably only lasted about three seconds, the whole thing."
One gets the sense from Elliott's direction, too, that the story takes place outside the real world, as characters who aren't physically present often show up and speak to Bobbie. Her three lovers appear to sing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" while she's hanging out with a different couple, and Joanne (Tony winner Patti LuPone) suddenly pops up in another friend's living room to sing "The Little Things You Do Together."
One element of Company that differed from Sondheim's original vision, besides the gender switch of Bobbie, was that of another character: the nervous bride Amy has become the nervous groom Jamie, a gay man. Sondheim was resistant to the idea at first, which Matt Doyle, who recently won the Tony for playing the character, knew.
"[Producer] Chris [Harper] was the first person to think of the idea and brought it to Marianne, and she said, 'There's no way we're going to convince him,'" Doyle recalled. "Marianne also felt that in a really beautifully feminist production, we shouldn't lose another female role, a great classic female role — there has to be a reason behind it."
That reason lay in "Getting Married Today," Jamie's showstopping song that regularly gets Doyle a mid-show standing ovation. He said, "Once Stephen really understood the reasoning behind this new anxiety around gay marriage and what that means for a culture that's never had that right before and how we fit into that culture and how we fit into this heteronormative institution, that was an idea that needed to be explored. That was an idea that could bring this piece a fresh perspective."
Of course, Sondheim still had his edits: "His big note for 'Getting Married' was, 'Faster.' I rely on that a lot because it does actually make the song easier. You have less space in between each word so you can breathe less, and he was right about it every single time," Doyle said. "Also, he loved the line 'I'm the next bride' ... Especially coming from the perspective of a gay man now, when this right [same-sex marriage] wasn't even a right that we had in the last revival in 2006, it was so important to him that that was joyful and celebrated."
Company wouldn't be here at all without Sondheim, but even though the new revival retooled his work, this production wouldn't look or sound like it does without him, either.
"He was very involved; he was there on our first meeting after lockdown," noted Christie. "He's obviously protective of his own work, but he also was totally up for creating something new for a new generation, making it seem relevant and really, admirably forward-thinking."
Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg