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  • Scott Carter Cooper

Company


I know that in these first Sondheim-free days this will sound a bit cold, but I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Stephen Sondheim’s work. I’m not stupid. I recognize his genius as both a lyricist and composer. It’s obviously intellectually stimulating. Absolutely amusing. Unquestionably astonishing. But I’m not sure it’s always emotionally authentic.

That’s not to say I don’t respect or even enjoy much of his work. In the second semester of my freshman year in college I was cast in several small roles in Hamlet, yet I consider my first real brush with genius to be hearing the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd for the first time. But by the time I played Bobby in a truncated concert version of Company, my ambivalence toward Sondheim began.


Sondheim was not A genius. He was genius personified. And by definition, personification is flawed. Sondheim’s flaw was that he knew he was genius, and he wasn’t afraid to let you know that he knew it, which oftentimes rendered his work antiseptic. I’ve found that many times where characters should be experiencing emotions, Sondheim’s characters describe their emotions. I think this is the key to why so much of his work comes across as anemic when taken out of context.


So, it was with this ambivalence firmly in place, I took my seat for a matinee preview of the latest Broadway production of Company. My ambivalence was compounded by the changing of the gender of the main character from male to female, and unfortunately not relieved by the final curtain.


Bobby is a man about to turn thirty-five in the mid-seventies as American society is in the throws of rejecting the foundational institution of marriage and embracing the sexual revolution. Updating that story and centering a woman is a valid – even necessary – story to tell in the twenty-first century. The songs in Company could even be used to tell that story. But more than changing the central character’s name spelling needs to be done to make Bobbie and her story authentic much less relevant. Women’s sexuality has never been as free as a straight man’s sexuality in the 1970s. As we brace for the Supreme Court to turn the clock back on women’s bodily autonomy, a woman as sexually active as Bobbie is going to be less concerned with a fear of commitment and more concerned with her right to choose. Company was originally a challenging examination of changing social mores, and now with a somewhat lazy update is rendered as relevant as Frozen.


With all that said, the current production of Company is entertaining. Bobby/Bobbie is not a likeable character, and it's never really clear why so many people are drawn to them. Dean Jones was the original Bobby, and his work with Disney had created a likeable persona which went a long way in disguising that fact. Katrina Link is attractive but lacks a natural charisma to fill that gap in the book. She has a cool, Deitrich-like beauty that’s appreciable, not really approachable. The play is structured to climax with “Being Alive” as a catharsis, but here it comes across as soulless selfishness. Link’s performance is effective but coming right after Patti LuPone’s “Ladies Who Lunch,” is redundant.


LuPone (and several other actors) will no doubt be honored with award nominations. She’s played this role before and has made a minor career of performing “Ladies Who Lunch” for the past decade. Her achievement with this performance isn’t that she redefines it, it’s that she makes it fresh by refusing to play it as a star turn.

Company is worth seeing. The production is slick and everything you’d want from a Broadway show. But it’s also out of step with the times in a way that’s a bit jarring, leaving a bitter aftertaste and almost inexcusably rendering Sondheim less than relevant.

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