17 November 2006 (Fri), Broadway
A revival (still in previews) of the Sondheim classic directed by John Doyle, the English director known for his minimalist approach in which the cast members play all the instruments. I didn’t want to miss this show, one of my all-time favorites, so I ordered the tickets from Tokyo rather than waiting for the half-price booth. I wasn’t taking any chances. I went with a friend who was seeing the show for the first time.
The previous year’s Sweeney Todd, which used the same actor/musician technique, was a revelation. While it hardly replaced the traditional version, it certainly provided a fresh perspective on the show. (Whether it would be enjoyable without having seen the original is an open question.) Company, being an abstract series of loosely related sequences rather than a proper narrative, seemed like an even more appropriate choice for this technique. The various couples interact with other couples in song but not in narrative scenes other than the birthday party that frames the show; that is, outside their specific vignettes, the characters are for the most part commenting on the action rather than participating in it directly. I figured that the use of instruments would work perfectly within this context, providing another means of commenting on the story.
The results were not what I had expected. In Sweeney, the technique had a distancing effect, reminding us effectively that we were attending the tale of Sweeney Todd while keeping us on the outside. When the characters picked up their instruments, it served as a constant reminder that these were simply actors. In “Brechtian” style, we were not drawn into their world but were left to observe it dryly. We thus watch Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett deteriorate into depravity, with all the accompanying blood and horror, without becoming or needing to become emotionally involved. When the cast points to the audience at the end as complicit in the crime, it comes as an unexpected (if unconvincing) twist.
In Company, there is no story to begin with, just a jumble of couples who Bobby visits in entirely discrete skits. Bobby’s nature is gradually revealed through his reactions to these encounters rather than any determined activity on his part. He is something of a blob throughout, a shortcoming in the show that no amount of directing can disguise. The other people are sketches rather than fully developed characters, making it hard to identify with anyone. It is the show’s theme that is the star, and for all the brilliance of the music and book, we remain outsiders to the end even in the traditional version. With no narrative to be drawn into, we are already distanced from the action.
Consequently, the instruments don’t really add to our appreciation of either the narrative or the songs. They’re simply irrelevant, interesting only because it’s a “different” approach. For example, the boo-boop-be-boop in “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” is only funny as a variation on the original staging (where it was sung rather than played on a sax) and is ineffective here. At times the technique does real damage: specifically, in “Barcelona”, it’s jarring when the girl leaves with her tuba since the instrument suddenly becomes a real object rather than an abstract presence, a distraction that dulls the impact of the final lines. For the most part, though, the technique is harmless enough. I would say generally that it is an interesting idea that doesn’t pay off.
The director’s other attempts at a distancing effect, however, were more seriously flawed. There was no set as such, just a number of cubes scattered around the room. These served as tables, a bed or other objects, but sometimes they were just, well, cubes. In “Getting Married Today”, for instance, the woman runs all over the stage around these mysterious cubes, which is amusing but pointless. “Barcelona” would have been greatly helped by the presence of a real bed (or the singers could at least lie on the cube and act like they’re on a bed, rather than stand blankly in front). As it was, it was hard to know what was going on.
Worse than this was the unnatural actions in many of the scenes. In the karate scene, the husband and wife mime their moves from opposite ends of the stage, so that she chops at stage right and he reacts at stage left. What on earth for? It felt like a collegiate attempt to be “different” and came off as silly. I’m still not sure whether or not Bobby was caught in the middle of their tussle on their second go-round, as called for in the script. In “Barcelona”, the couple did not rip their clothes off and jump into bed, but stood next to each other and just mimed sleeping. Perhaps because it was not entirely clear what they were doing, this is the first Company I’ve ever seen in which the audience failed to react to the song’s first line, a line that should be a surefire laugh. Similarly, at the end of the song, Marta (with that infernal tuba) says that she’ll stay, but she is just looking across the room at Bobby rather than moving back towards him. I’m not sure that the audience can even understand that Bobby, having half-heartedly asked April to stay, is supposed to be distressed at her sudden change of heart, which would ordinarily be very funny. This is partly due to the acting (of which more below), but I suspect that the scene is pretty much unplayable as directed.
The saddest single misfire by the director was in “Side By Side By Side”. In the traditional staging, each couple in succession does a tap dance towards the end of the number, with the husband doing the first half and the wife completing it. Then Bobby does his steps – and there is silence, a stark reminder that there is no one to complete the dance. It is an epiphany for Bobby as he sees keenly just how alone he is, and an epiphany for us as well, bringing the show’s theme into sharp focus in one amazing theatrical moment. In Doyle’s version, the tap steps are replaced by instrumental riffs, which is a potentially interesting approach. Unfortunately, the passages are played not by the couples but by the couples plus one, i.e., by three people each. In this context, Bobby’s isolation doesn’t make sense: while he has plenty of friends who could join him, the problem is he doesn’t have a single special friend to finish the passage. The director’s peculiar choice here takes the focus away from the theme of marriage or commitment and robs us of that sudden jolt of enlightenment. This is one of my favorite moments in all of musical theatre, so for me, this failure alone was pretty unforgivable.
I still disagree with the inclusion of “Marry Me A Little”, a song that was not in the original. First is the question of whether Bobby can be so self-aware at this point as to sing this song. But there is also a question of balance with other songs:
You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful…
Marry me a little, love me just enough…
Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep…
This duplication technique (i.e., juxtaposing two variations of the same sentiment) is nice when it’s just the first and third of these songs, since they act as bookends. In other words, “Being Alive” recalls “Sorry-Grateful” in that Bobby can be simultaneously fearful and longing of the same action. When “Marry Me A Little” comes in between, though, it disrupts this effect. Three times is once too many for this technique. Content-wise, it also anticipates the finale too closely, rendering the latter somewhat redundant. I can understand wanting to close Act 1 with a song, but surely they could have picked something more original. My first act as replacement director would be to drop this song.
The acting was generally fine, but I wasn’t wild about the star Raul Esparza. Granted that his character is notoriously difficult, I still would have preferred a detached bemusement rather than just a blank. He did not look like he was having fun with the role, even in the exuberant opening numbers for each act. “Barcelona” was yet again a problem. Bobby asks offhandedly where she’s going, expecting her to say “the bathroom” or “for a cup of water”, and she answers “Barcelona” – shouldn’t he be a bit surprised? As it was, it barely seemed to register on him, and as a result he lost the laugh. I have to assume that he was directed this way, but in any case it was an unappealing interpretation. He redeemed himself to a large extent with a tremendous “Being Alive”, and there’s no doubting his skill as a singer. I just wish he would have played with the role a bit more. I wonder how he would have done under a different director.
Others were fine. Amy was terrific, belting out “Getting Married Today” at full speed with perfect articulation and milking the role for every last laugh. She was the standout in the cast. April was also cute. Barbara Walsh, as Joanne, has to play against the ghost of Elaine Stritch, but I thought she acquitted herself pretty well. It’s too bad the director doesn’t give us a chance to applaud after “The Ladies Who Lunch” (he continues immediately with the scene) because she deserved it. The guys were basically solid. The only so-so member was Marta, who didn’t make much of an impression with “Another Hundred People”.
Company is not the perfect musical but a perfect theatrical experience, with some of the greatest music ever on a Broadway stage. Still, while it’s always worth seeing, I don’t think I’d recommend this version for someone who had never seen it before. It’s an interesting experiment when measured against the original, but doesn’t add up to much on its own terms. I hope the director thinks twice about using his unusual technique for other shows.