Arts and Culture, Musical Theatre

‘Bobbie Baby’ Sondheim’s gender-bending ‘Company’ is a smash- hit for the new generation

Stephen Sondheim's Company, West End Gielgud Theatre

I first watched Sondheim’s Company when I was sixteen years old and was immediately captivated. The production starred and was directed by Broadway star Daniel Evans, fresh from the success of Sunday In the Park With George, another Sondheim hit. The production was at Sheffield’s Lyceum: not the most obvious location for a Sondheim musical – which typically finds their homes on the glittering stages of Broadway or The West End. For Evans, however, the Steel City clearly won him over. He went on to become the Lyceums’ Artistic Director for the next seven years, going on to star in and direct musicals as diverse as My Fair Lady, This My Family and an award-winning adaptation of the Sheffield classic The Full Monty. Evans adaptation of Company began, for me, what will surely be a lifetime obsession with Sondheim and his incomparable imagination.

There are certain cultural moments in our lives that have a lasting impact—for teens of the 1970s, it might have been the release of Jaws or Grease; for those growing up in the 1990s it might have been the break-up of Take That and that tearful press conference; for us millennials, it was probably the sensation of the Harry Potter series. These were all big moments, but there are also small cultural moments in our lives, that almost slip by imperceptible, yet they change how we see the world and our place in it. For me, this was Evan’s adaptation of Company – I loved the sense of intrigue, the psychological complexity, the unsolvability of the play. The contradictions of Sorry- Grateful and the raw emotion of Being Alive. Its dialogue, wit, and its contrary nature, all made it become my favourite musical. Despite seeing a slew of West End musicals whilst living in London – everything ranging from Wicked, to The Phantom of the Opera, to The Book of Mormon yet Company still holds the top spot.

So, when I heard that Company was to return to the West End, I was eager to see if it could transport me back to what I saw ten years ago. One complaint that critics have levied at traditional productions is that, in modern times, the 35-year-old Bobby’s perpetual singledom wouldn’t be such a hot topic amongst his friends. That is, if Bobby is a man. In the new Gielgud theatre production, Bobbie is actually a single 35-year-old woman, whose friends and casual boyfriends keep pestering her to commit and get married. The only problem is that Bobbie’s quite happy with the way things are—she doesn’t see why she needs another half to make her whole. The dialogue and lyrics of Marianne Elliot’s production of Company are almost identical to the original: the only thing that’s changed is the pronouns. The centrepiece of the story, as in all productions that have proceeded it, is the ‘surprise’ Birthday party being thrown to celebrate Bobbie’s 35th Birthday. Bobbie, not a fan of Birthday parties, especially surprise ones, would just rather not have the fuss.

As director Marianne Elliot pointed out, when talking to the BBC last year, the idea of a commitment-shy 35-year-old is not a big enough, or unusual enough, topic in modern times. But if we make that character a woman, all sorts of questions arise – why would a 35-year-old woman not want to be in a serious relationship or marry? Doesn’t she want to settle down and have a family of her own? How can friends alone be enough ‘Company’ to last a lifetime? A lot is suddenly at stake here. Funnily enough, the exact same questions were asked of the male Bobby nearly forty years ago, showing us that whilst women might be forty years behind men in achieving this form of equality, social expectations can and do change with time.

Stephen Sondheim's Company Rosalie Craig

Elliot’s previous stage credits include National theatre hits, from the hard-hitting and sweet The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to the epic War Horse, directed alongside Tom Morris. It’s clear that she had the theatrical chops – not to mention the passion and dedication – to resurrect Company from its grave. Elliot has made a few other modernisations alongside the gender swap:  two of Bobbie’s friends, originally the couple Amy and Paul, are now Jamie and Paul. In 2019, the inclusion of a gay couple amongst Bobbie’s friends in modern-day Manhattan seems only expected. As well as making the production more socially and politically relevant by including the topic of gay marriage, it also allowed actor Jonathan Bailey, who plays Jamie, to flex his comedic muscles. When Jamie gets cold-feet about his upcoming nuptials to Paul, an increasingly anxious Jamie shouts out: ‘People will think I’m pregnant.’ Cue howls of laughter from the audience.

Gender stereotypes and some of the more misogynistic undertones of the original production were also updated. In earlier productions, Jenny is the timid, uptight one – failing to convince her husband, and the audience, that she’s truly enjoying the spliff they’re smoking. In Elliot’s production, David, her husband, is the uptight one, pretending to be part of the cool crowd, and just embarrassing himself in the process. Jenny tells the audience sardonically: ‘I married a square.’ Likewise, the Andrews Sisters’ style You Could Drive a Person Crazy, which bemoans Robert’s reluctance to commit to any of the women he’s seeing, undergoes a radical transformation. Instead of being a song that merely expresses the love interests’ frustrations with a commitment-phobe, with the gender-switch, it becomes an expression of the men’s incomprehension at a woman’s reluctance to conform to societal expectations (served alongside a cocktail of female-specific jibes: ‘Dirty flirt’ cries one; ‘You feminist’ accuses another; ‘Is it that time of month?’ Nice).

Another change is Elliot’s use of sets and stagecraft – the show’s distinctly Manhattan look has been muted; in its place is a vivid vortex of sliding doors (or backdrops!) that perfectly capture Bobbie’s chaotic, torn and frequently changing mind, as she looks in, and observes, the highs and lows of married life and the baffling complexity of even the best of relationships.

The Saturday afternoon matinee that I saw didn’t star Rosalie Craig, which I was initially disappointed by, but her understudy Anika Noni Rose dazzled in the role, imbuing Bobbie with strength and warmth that made the audience fall immediately in love with her. Two-time Grammy and Tony-winner Patti Lupone also made a return to the stage as the outrageous, yet vulnerable Joanne. Lupone’s character is a pseudo-drunken Aunt, confidante, therapist and all ’round buddy to Bobbie, who, through their conversations, discovers, and begins to overcome, insecurities of her own. At the heart of the production is a haunting question – do we ever feel truly happy? And even if we can – is it worth, or even right, to place all that responsibility on another person? Songs such as Sorry-Grateful and Marry Me a Little are full of comedic touches that make the audience fall about with laughter, but they’re also imbued with a deep, almost agonising pathos. They capture, aloud, the internal conflict that characterises most adult relationships: should I stay, or should I go? These married couples have chosen to stay – and Sondheim makes it very clear that, for his characters at least, love is a choice, not a fantasy. The lyrics’ sentiment is infused with Sondheim’s characteristic contradiction: ‘You’re scared she’s starting/To drift away… and scared she’ll stay’; ‘Everything’s different, nothing’s changed. ‘ Maybe the message that we can take away is that no one really knows what the best way is to experience life, or whether hindsight would make us choose differently, but we sometimes have to see everything: the good, the bad and the ugly, to truly experience life.

Speaking of, the moment in Company that has always intrigued and confused me in equal measure is probably the show’s most famous song: Being Alive. Being Alive is Company’s closing number, a show-stopper of such pure magic and magnitude, that hearing it quite literally makes you happy to be alive. It appears to be Bobbie’s last-minute resolve to commit, to give love a chance, whether the result is worth it or not. But how does all this fit in with a show that proposes to resist societal expectations and champion Bobbie’s choice to go it alone?

Someone to sit in my chair,

And ruin my sleep,

And make me aware,

Of being alive.

These hardly sound like the words of a happy singleton. But as with all things Company, the song is not conclusive, nor does it necessarily resist such a conclusion. Like the rest of the show, Being Alive is deeply ambivalent about the good sides of marriage, as well as the bad. It asks us to ask ourselves the scariest question of all: can we ever really know without experiencing both sides, and more terrifying still, even if we do, will we still not have all the answers? It’s a tough question and one that Sondheim refuses to answer for us.

Perhaps the message that Elliot wants us to take away from this new production is the value of personal freedom. Embracing our quirks and differences, and most importantly choosing our own path. We see that one of the seemingly happy couples – Peter and Susan – have decided to get a divorce, a decision which, surprisingly, saves their relationship, making it stronger than ever. Counterintuitive? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. Impossible? In Sondheim’s world, and the world of complex human beings in which we all reside, absolutely not.

Company is a musical that celebrates the euphoric highs and crushing lows of being human, a recognition of the unspeakable exhilaration of taking risks and letting ourselves experience being alive.

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