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  • Finian Hackett

Does anyone still wear a hat? - The history of Sondheim's Company

A concept musical. That is what Company is. What is a concept musical? Well, it's a musical that doesn't really have a linear plotline or story and focuses more on a theme or message. Well known early examples of concept musicals include Hair, Cabaret and Man of La Mancha. But it wasn't until 1970 that the concept musical was brought to the forefront in the form of Company. Sondheim would use this idea to structure more of his works including Follies (1971) and Assassins (1990).

Let's get started on Company. The show focuses on the protagonist, Bobby, on and around his 35th birthday in New York. Throughout his life, he has struggled to settle down and meet someone. Throughout the show, short vignettes with different friends and couples help Bobby get an idea of what marriage is really like and brings the struggles within relationships right to the forefront. With a cast of just 14 performers, the show was (and still is) intimate, groundbreaking and hilarious at the same time.

Before we look at the history of the musical, here is a brief description of each couple/character within the show (per the original production):

Sarah and Harry - Married. Sarah loves karate and has been teaching it to Harry. However, she has problems with food and he has problems with drink.

Peter and Susan - A married (then divorced) couple. Susan is a Southern belle and Peter is an Ivy League graduate. Both of them are quite relaxed about marriage.

Jenny and David - Married. Jenny is a bit of a square whereas David is more of a free spirit. David believes that a man should definitely be married.

Amy and Paul - About to get married. Amy is neurotic and is petrified of marrying Paul. Paul is a lot more laid back and loves Amy despite her crazy ways.

Joanne and Larry - Married. Joanne's third husband. She is a lot older than Bobby's other friends and is extremely sarcastic. Larry is a lot more subdued.

April, Marta and Kathy - Bobby's three girlfriends. April is a ditzy flight attendant. Marta is a free spirit who wants to explore NYC. Kathy is Bobby's long time on and off again girlfriend who is sweet but out of place in New York.

Original Broadway Production

Company originally opened in Boston for out of town tryouts. The show received mixed reviews with Variety stating 'As it stands now it's for ladies' matinees, homos and misogynists'. Such kind words.

Despite this, the show transferred to Broadway and opened at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre, soon to be home to MJ The Musical) on April 26th 1970 and ran till January 1st 1972. Sondheim was no stranger to the Alvin as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum had opened there 8 years prior. The cast included, as listed on the poster above, the likes of Donna McKechnie, Susan Browning, Barbara Barrie, Beth Howland, George Coe and Elaine Stritch. The casting of Bobby was a little more tumultuous. Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Psycho) was the original choice for Bobby but pulled out to direct a play. He was replaced by actor Dean Jones. Jones performed the out of town tryouts but only a month after opening on Broadway, he left the production and was replaced by Larry Kert (the original Tony in West Side Story). Hal Prince, the show's producer and director, has clarified that Jone's exit was planned and it was later revealed that he had been struggling mentally due to a strenuous divorce. In an unusual move by the Tony Awards committee, Larry Kert was eligible for the Tony that year instead of Dean Jones (the only time a replacement has ever been eligible for a Tony).

Speaking of the Tonys, the show would go on to receive a record-breaking 14 nominations. This record is still amazing by today's standards, sitting comfortably behind Hamilton (16 noms), The Producers, Jagged Little Pill, Billy Elliott (15 noms) and equal to show's such as Moulin Rouge. Though it didn't win any of its six acting nominations (including for Larry Kert), the show won Best Scenic Design, Best Direction, Best Book (George Furth), Best Score, Best Lyrics and the prestigious Best Musical.

This production transferred to the Her Majesty's Theatre in London where it ran for 322 performances. Larry Kert, Elaine Stritch and Donna McKechnie transferred with the production.

Original Cast Album: Company, a behind the scenes documentary on the recording of the show's score, has become a cult classic in the theatre world. Dean Jones featured as Bobby on the cast recording. Below is a clip of the three girlfriends recording 'You Could Drive A Person Crazy'.

1995, Company returns

In 1995, Company received two separate revivals on either side of the Atlantic. The first to open was on Broadway. Apart from a reunion concert with the show's original cast, this was the first revival of Company on Broadway. Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Scott Ellis, the new production opened at the Criterion Center Stage Right (a now-defunct theatre home to the flagship Gap store). It starred Boyd Gaines as Bobby and featured many famous names including Debra Monk as Joanne, Kate Burton as Sarah, Robert Westenberg as Harry, Danny Burstein as Paul, Veanne Cox as Amy and Jane Krakowski, LaChanze and Charlotte d'Amboise as April, Marta and Kathy respectively. What a cast! Despite all this, the show only ran for 68 performances (a limited run) and received just two Tony noms, a small amount compared to the original. There were rumours of the show transferring to the Brooks Atkinson but this never occurred, with Boyd Gaines vocal struggles reportedly part of that.

A completely separate London revival opened in December 1995 at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Sam Mendes. This cast was just as star-studded as Broadway with Adrian Lester becoming the first black man to play Bobby in a major production. He was joined by Sophie Thompson as Amy, Rebecca Front as Sarah, Clive Rowe as Harry, Clare Burt as Susan, Sheila Gish as Joanne and Paul Bentley as Larry. Following a 3 month run at the Donmar, the show transferred to the Albery (now Nöel Coward) Theatre where it played till June 1996. Adrian Lester and Sheila Gish both won Oliviers for their performances whilst Sam Mendes won for his direction. The show was even filmed for BBC Two! Below is 30 minutes of footage from the Broadway revival.

Company - with a twist!

2006 saw something extremely different happen with Company. Following the success of his production of Sweeney Todd, John Doyle directed and choreographed an actor/muso production of Company in Cincinnati starring Raúl Esparza and Barbara Walsh. For those who don't know, actor/muso is when the actors sing, dance, act AND play the score for the show. Following rave reviews, the production transferred to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in November 2006 and would run till the following July. The show didn't really have any big names in the cast due to the actor/muso demands but that made it even more thrilling to have relatively unknown talents take on such an iconic show. One of those people was Elizabeth Stanley as April (and also oboe, tuba and alto sax player!). This was her Broadway debut and 15 years later, she is nominated for a Tony for her performance in Jagged Little Pill ! The production won the Best Musical Revival award at both the Tonys and the Drama Desk Awards. This production was filmed for PBS and broadcast as part of their Great Performances series.

All change!

In 2013, a private workshop of Company occurred - this time with Bobby as a gay man. This was an idea brought together by Sondheim himself and Tony Award-winning director John Tiffany. The workshop starred Tony nominee Daniel Evans as Bobby with Bobby Steggert and Michael Urie in supporting roles. Joanne was gender-swapped - played in the workshop by none other than Alun Cumming! Ultimately though, this workshop never went any further (but I wish there was footage!).

Fast forward to 2018 and a fully-fledged gender-swapping Sondheim backed revival is in full swing with Bobby being changed to Bobbie - a woman! Other major changes included paranoid bride-to-be Amy becoming a groom named Jamie, about to marry his fiancee Paul. Bobby's three girlfriends were now boyfriends in the form of Andy, PJ and Theo. Many other lyric and script changes were made to modernise the play and bring it into the 21st century.

Produced by Marianne Elliott and David Harper and directed by Elliott, the production opened at the Gielgud Theatre in London in October 2018. It starred Rosalie Craig as the first-ever female Bobbie alongside performers such as Mel Giedroyc as Sarah, Jonathan Bailey as Jamie, Alex Gaumond as Paul, Ben Lewis as Larry and Richard Fleeshman as Andy. The production also saw Patti LuPone return to the West End for the first time since 1993 (after stating in 2017 that she'd never do musical theatre again...). The production received SO many 5 star reviews - the most I've ever seen. The show gained 9 nominations at the Olivers, the most that year alongside Come From Away. Patti LuPone won her second Olivier for Best Supporting Actress whilst Jonathan Bailey won for Supporting Actor. The show also won Best Set Design and Best Musical Revival.

After the success of this revival, a Broadway transfer was announced in 2019 with Patti LuPone reprising her award-winning turn as Joanne alongside Tony winner Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. The production, like many, had just started previews before being shut down in March 2020. After 18 months, the production will return in November with almost all of the planned cast including Jennifer Simard, Christopher Sieber, Nikki Renee Daniels, Christopher Fitzgerald and Matt Doyle. Tony Awards will soon follow in 2022, I have no doubt about it.

Why I love Company

Company has to be one of my favourite shows of all time. What I love about it the most is its unique story. All the little scenes between the couples only last for roughly 10 minutes at a time but in that time, the characters are so well-formed that you love them straight away. The book is fantastically written by George Furth. A huge sprinkling of comedy but with a side order of distress and sadness. The score by Sondheim is easily one of his best. Boasting songs such as 'Being Alive', 'The Ladies Who Lunch', 'Another Hundred People' and 'Getting Married Today', it's no wonder it's become a firm favourite. Having seen the show both in the West End and on Broadway, I can tell you that the new updates also work tremendously and the story feels just as fresh today as it did 51 years ago. There is one production that I have failed to mention and that is the 2011 New York Philharmonic production which starred Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Anika Noni Rose, Christina Hendricks, Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton (just to name a few). That was really the first production of Company that I watched and where my love for the show began. To finish off the article, below is a video of the full cast of that production reuniting at the 2011 Tony Awards to perform 'Side by Side'.

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