NEW YORK — The late Stephen Sondheim is arguably the greatest composer-lyricist that Broadway has ever produced, and certainly the most meticulous and exacting. Yet whenever called upon by others to revise his work, he seemed more than willing to do so.
Think of the London production of Follies that Cameron Mackintosh wanted to be less downbeat. Or his new lyrics for his most recorded song, “Send in the Clowns,” at the request of Barbra Streisand for her Broadway Album. Or his much-adapted lyrics for the current revival of Company once director Marianne Elliott decreed that the central character, a 35-year-old bachelor named Bobby, get a gender reassignment to become bachelorette Bobbie.
Company premiered in 1970, kicking off an extraordinary decade of creativity for Sondheim (and his director-collaborator Harold Prince) that included Follies and A Little Night Music and ended with his masterwork, Sweeney Todd. But it was Company that announced Sondheim’s arrival at the center of musical theater innovation with a brash, pulsating, urban and urbane score that was so of the moment and has since proven timeless. Bobby (and now Bobbie) is commitment-phobic, content to be single despite the urging of the five married couples that form her circle of friends. They are eager for Bobbie to wed, presumably so she can be as miserable as they are.
Company consists of a series of largely unrelated sketches, understandable since they began as an evening of one-act playlets written by George Furth. Some of them seemed stale and creaky 52 years ago, like a scene about a combative couple that has discovered the wonders of jiu-jitsu and another on marijuana hijinks. Here they seem fresher than usual thanks to the comedic skills of Jennifer Simard in the former and Christopher Fitzgerald in the latter. Still, as with so many Sondheim shows, the book falls qualitatively short compared to the insightful, character-rich score.
Still, it is a pleasure to be reintroduced to the very New York-centric songs from Sondheim’s early days – the acutely ambivalent attitude towards marriage. “Sorry/Grateful,” a snapshot of harried Manhattan, “Another Hundred People,” that boozy 11 o’clock salute to the idle elite, “The Ladies Who Lunch” and many more. Those survive intact, but others with now non-existent character names or what The Boys in the Band called a “pronoun problem” do not fare as well.
The production’s key dilemmas, however, are the subtle and not-so-subtle implications of turning Bobby into Bobbie. Her unattached status at 35 gets equated to her ticking biological clock and, as played by Katrina Lenk – Tony Award winner for The Band’s Visit – a palpable peevishness about the very idea of coupledom. The character has always been relatively bland compared to his/her married friends, though Lenk emphasizes that quality more than necessary. While it is too little-too late, she does come on strong with her final number, “Being Alive,” her abrupt turnabout on marriage.
One rewrite and casting revision that works well is turning Amy into Jamie, the character that gets cold feet the morning of his wedding, as expressed in the trip-hammer plaint “Getting Married Today,” as delivered with show-stopping bravura by Matt Doyle. Making his nuptials same-sex gives the scene an added freshness, until Bobbie suddenly proposes to Jamie, adding an unfathomable twist.
Doyle won a featured performer Tony, as did Patti LuPone as jaded Joanne, devouring “The Ladies Who Lunch” like the diva she is. But here too director Elliott’s gender conceit paints herself into a corner. Where Joanne originally came on sexually to Bobby, here she pimps her husband to Bobbie, giving the scene a very different, sour spin.
If marital ambivalence was the tone that Sondheim and Furth wrote for Company, that is the feeling one leaves the new revival with. It would be hard not to be grateful for another encounter with this show, especially as so well performed as this production is, but also a bit sorry for some of the wrong-headed paths this approach leads us down.
COMPANY, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W, 45th St., New York. Through Sunday, July 31. $59-$329, 212-239-6200.