Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Mixed (Up) Company

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Mixed (Up) Company

Article excerpt

A classic show is revived with a twist

Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in the Dec. 4, 2013, installment of the Columbia Daily Spectator, an independent publication run by undergraduate students at Columbia University. When this piece was first published, the adaptation of Company had received a single private reading in October 2013. As of press time for this issue of TSR, Roundabout Theatre Company had not announced any plan to mount a full production.

Few BuzzFeed articles have appeared as frequently on my Facebook news feed as "22 Signs You Were Raised By Stephen Sondheim," a piece that has been making the rounds of the cyber-world as of two weeks ago [mid-November 2013]. This isn't an exactly shocking fact for someone whose Facebook friends are mostly "theatre people," among whom Sondheim is a universally known name. Perhaps this is because, as Anika Chapin, an MFA dramaturgy candidate at Columbia and self-proclaimed "huge Sondheim nerd," says, "Sondheim's shows are so complex" that "you can literally spend an entire lifetime analyzing them."

The caliber of Sondheim's productions is exemplified by Company (1970), which, with [music and] lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth, earned 14 Tony nominations (an unprecedented number at the time) and won six. The show follows 35-year-old Bobby in his skepticism about romantic commitment and marriage as he interacts with several married friends in New York on his birthday. Recently, the news broke that Sondheim and John Tiffany, director of the Tony-winning musical Once, will be re-adapting Company with Bobby as an openly gay man. Consequently, all three of Bobby's romantic interests, played by women since the musical's 1970 debut, will be redeveloped as men.

When asked to describe Company in a few brief sentences, Chapin called it a story about "a man who finally realizes the value of connecting in a relationship." Margo Jefferson, a professor at Columbia's School of the Arts, called it a story about "dating, mating, couples and social rituals" as parts of "wild, cynical, sophisticated New York life in the '70s." Roger Oliver, professor of liberal arts and theatre history at the Juilliard School, outlined the show as "a musical that presents New York in the '70s through the eyes of a 35-year-old bachelor and his relationship with five married couples."

All three descriptions, given in the midst of a major development in the musical's context, possess one curious similarity: They describe general themes of New York social interaction without specific reference to Bobby's sexual orientation. This raises the question: If Bobby's sexual orientation is not among the integral, defining characteristics of Company, what is the significance of changing it now?

Jefferson asserts that the timing of the development "couldn't be more appropriate," seeing as "we," the theatrical community, "have long passed the issue of incumbent theatrics," where whispered questions about whether or not a character is "in the closet" are associated with every major production. Oliver says that "ultimately, it is a show about marriage," and that, due to the recent political advancements made with respect to same-sex unions, "that may be the reason why it is being thought about in those terms."

When speaking to The New York Times in October [2013], Sondheim commented on the potential political implications that might be associated with the change in Bobby's sexual orientation. "We don't deal with gay marriage as such," he says, claiming that this new version of Company seeks to explore its "subject matter in a fresh way."

However, that's not to say that there hasn't been speculation about Bobby's sexual orientation in the past. In fact, Oliver points out that "there were people from the beginning who wondered if, in fact, Bobby was gay," saying that these speculators often wondered "if that was the reason why he had trouble committing to getting married. …

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