The Experience: Streaming Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Company
“I’ve got everything but freedom, which is everything.” Stated clearly by a stoned married man in Donmar Warehouse‘s filmed staging of Company, but it fits inside most of our lives these days as we hunker down and try to stay safe, for ourselves and for those around us. Another that works, for anyone who is isolating with another (including me to myself): “You could drive a person crazy, you could drive a person mad“. So in the mode of salvation and sanity, I searched for some more online theatrical streaming entertainment to fill my self-isolating evenings. Luckily, I happened across the 1995 Donmar Warehouse, London revival of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece on relationships and just plain understanding and “Being Alive” within. I was all set to see the West End transfer of Company on Broadway March 26th, 2020, but sadly the whole theatre world has been derailed and darkened due to the very real threat of COVID19.
Needing some Company of my own, I tracked this personally never-seen-before production down that was videotaped at Donmar Warehouse and broadcast by BBC Two on March 1, 1997. It was directed with an integrated eye for internal meaning by Sam Mendes in 1995, finding a new psychological calling inside its personal mechanics. He discovered an altering of the inner workings of the piece in order to unleash a dialogue of self-exploration that had so far evaded the intricate emotional ‘concept musical’. Opening on December 13, 1995, before transferring to the Albery Theatre that following March, the revival astounding the establishment, critics, and audience members. They absorbed how he pulled back from focusing on the couples and their relationships and turned the show’s inquisitive eye more towards the lead character’s inner workings, peering inside his troubled, defended, and curious mindset.
Company, a 1970 musical comedy with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) and a book by George Furth (Merrily We Roll Along) was given an intensely altered perspective at Donmar. Finding drama and decision in the inner mental workings of its centerpiece figure, Bobby, played compellingly by the handsome Adrian Lester, the first black actor to play the role in a major production. Surrounded on all sides by his “good and crazy” friends and girlfriends, the story, if you want to call it that, is structured around entwined short vignettes peppered with deliciously intricate songs that contain whole story arcs stuffed wisely inside a few lyrical moments. They pretty much ask the same revolving questions that around swirl the hearts of many, in regards to partnership and commitment. “Are you ever sorry you got married?“, Bobby asks Harry, a wonderful Clive Rowe, late one evening after dinner and drinks. He’s “sorry/grateful” he thinks, but to Bobby, it doesn’t quite make sense quite yet. “What do you get?!?” he bellows later, but the answer he truly needs is much more difficult to get to, and it will take much more thought and inspection to uncover.
“When you got friends like mine“, who needs anything else, Bobby thinks. The cast, beautifully assembled, sing a flat-toned “Happy Birthday” devilishly, and surprise each other on Bobby’s 35th birthday with a cake dotted with candles that metaphorically can’t be blown out. Sophie Thompson (London’s revival of Into the Woods) has a great time with “(Not) Getting Married“, as does Hannah James (TV’s “Mercy Street“) as the dimwitted April who needs to fly off to “Barcelona“, a song beautifully originated by the wonderful Dean Jones and Susan Browning back in 1970. James’ innocent delivery feels about as perfect as one could hope for though, sailing strongly on her naivety and quirky thought patterns. “No, you’re a very special girl. And not because you’re bright…Not just because you’re bright. You’re just a very special girl…June!,” says Bobby. “April.” says April. The play within the musical is divine, and deeply intricate, winding-up mental projections that materialize before his eyes. These moments are thought up ideas, rather than real conversations. The set-ups sing loud inside Bobby’s muddled head, spinning around and around like an inner mind tornado trying to find a place to touch down that won’t cause too much damage. There is a forward-thinking force within this construct that back in the day was revolutionary, reformulating Company into something it should have always been. It’s hard to remember that when watching today, but in that historical context, this production amazes and redefines.
Originally titled Threes, the plot revolves around Robert, a single man unable to commit fully to a serious relationship attempting to understand his attachment disorder by listening and questioning his five married couples who are his best friends and the three young women who seductively hang around the corners of his mind asking the same questions. Are the scenes real, or just the thoughts of a man trying to understand his world and his resistance? That armchair, that sits center stage facing the same direction as the audience signifies a whole lot, and with that clue, Company comes at us, grappling in, trying to wrestle out the truth. “It’s the little things you do together” one could say, but never as well or as dryly as Donmar‘s Joanne, forcibly portrayed by the regal Sheila Gish. That kind of power, particularly when she systematically steals the show with her “Ladies..” cannot be blocked or ignored.
The musical soars wildly along, fueled by passion and maybe some cocktails and quick snorts of adrenalin, giving us a high and a unique vantage point to ask “What would we do without you” that spirals out into a dance crazy snorting delusion. It’s a thrilling vaudevillian mind fuck, that jerks and flies around inside Bobby’s messed up desperate head. Mendes’ Company aggressively expands, claiming that this is “what it’s really about“; to dive into its darkness and anger in order to find what is compelling and thoroughly exciting in his search for understanding. Lester’s Bobby is thoroughly engaging and promising, but his vocals lack the rugged power that is needed to fully feel the force and desperation, particularly when comparing him to the stronger voiced Raúl Esparza, who dominated the part in the stronger and more uniquely focused 2006 Broadway revival. It is unfair to compare, but I found it almost impossible not to.
Esparza and that song live on in my personal theatrical history, making it hard to see the clever expansion that was happening at Donmar Warehouse in 1995. John Doyle layered on his own unique direction when he staged Company‘s revival on Broadway in the fall of 2006. His production starred the incomparable Esparza, alongside the phenomenal Barbara Walsh as Joanne. Esparza’s powerful and emotional voice takes “Being Alive” to a whole different level, forcing each line’s inner struggle to be laid out magnificently before us one beat after the other. It was a performance that I was aching to see, back in January 2007 when I, with 7 or 8 of my friends, gathered together at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on my birthday (not my 35th) to witness the magnetic Esparza do his thing. But I was blindsided, as I told him once to his face at a cocktail party. I discovered, once seated, that there was a replacement for Esparza that whole week and I was devastated. I wasn’t going to bear witness to his rendition, and even though his replacement (whose name I can’t remember) was electric, I truly left feeling that I had missed out on something special. Luckily for me the theatrical Gods must have heard my cries (or were they curses?). They found another way, delivering to me a surprise performance of Esparza at a Sondheim benefit later that year, replacing the headliner, a vocally tired Patti LuPone who was currently on Broadway doing Gypsy, just minutes into the show. He ran in, taking her place on stage, and gave me a “Being Alive” that will go down in my personal theatrical history as the best and most heartfelt version of that song without a doubt. No one can compare, no one.
The pulse of this Broadway revival is inside the collection of actors, all magnificent, not only giving us detailed depth and inner dimensions unseen before but also, they played all of the orchestral accompaniment themselves, including Esparza’s detailed and hesitant piano playing. Walsh (Public’s First Daughter Suite) is dynamite as Joanne, magnetically serving up a toast to the “Ladies…” that stings and soars. Standing “side by side by side” is the fabulous Heather Laws (Broadway’s The Boy From Oz) as the scared bride-to-be, Amy, fulfilling all of our comedic desires in a rush of syllables and demands. Katie Finneran (Broadway’s 2012 Annie) was also spectacular as the desperate Amy in the PBS/New York Philharmonic Concert in 2011 that starred Neil Patrick Harris. That was a remarkable and fun semi-staged concert filled with celebrated performances, including Patti LuPone, even though Harris failed to take the part as high and far as Raúl could and did. But it was Angel Desai as Marta in that Raúl-fueled Broadway revival who dazzled, gifting us with “Another Hundred People” that shines brighter than almost anyone else before her. Her delivery is clear and sharp, displaying an edge that is completely unlike Donmar’s Sophie Thompson who is funny and determined, but seems to overdo the eclectic and drops somewhat out of the race. “Knock, knock, is anybody there?” Comparing one with another could almost drive a person crazy. Especially when we look at the time frames and the reinventions of the ideal.
The original musical production opened on Broadway in the spring of 1970 at the Alvin Theatre, closing after 705 performances and seven previews. It was considered, in its time, to be one of the first musicals to deal with adult themes and romantic relationships, particularly sex and marriage. Sondheim stated back then that “Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” The idea worked, and as directed by the illustrious Hal Prince, the gamble paid off in spades. It became one of Sondheim’s greatest achievements, but not without some tweaking and refocusing here and there over the years. The opening cast included the talented Dean Jones (who had replaced Anthony Perkins early in the rehearsal period when Perkins departed to direct a play), along with Donna McKechnie (wow), Susan Browning, George Coe, Pamela Myers, Barbara Barrie, Charles Kimbrough, Merle Louise, Beth Howland, and the iconic Elaine Stritch. The thrilling musical staging was done by Michael Bennett, with a set design by Boris Aronson that consisted of two working elevators and various vertical platforms that emphasized the musical’s theme of isolation and social distancing, self-imposed.
Interestingly enough, shortly after opening night, Jones withdrew from the show. It was reported that it was due to illness, but rumors swirled that it was hitting too close to home since he was in the middle of his own troubled divorce. The above video was captured by the award-winning documentary filmmaker D.C. Pennebaker as a television pilot for a series highlighting cast-recording sessions made shortly after the show’s opening. Even though the series was scrapped almost immediately, the 1970 film titled Original Cast Album: Company, is chock full of behind the scenes footage documenting a difficult 14-hour recording process at a recording studio on East 30th Street and Third Avenue in May that went late into the night to sunrise, complete with commentary from Sondheim himself. Several of the show’s iconic numbers are captured, including the magnificent Pamela Myers singing “Another Hundred People“, Beth Howland slaying “(Not) Getting Married Today“, and Elaine Stritch struggling through a rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the wee hours of the morning at the tail end of the recording session. It’s a tense and thrilling moment to take in, all recorded with a live orchestra backing them up, and available now on YouTube. Go take a look, you won’t be disappointed.
Stritch struggled as only a true professional would, repeatedly trying to get it right but too exhausted to deliver. She struggled while her voice continued to get more and more ragged as her energy continued to drop away. Just before dawn, they all, thankfully, agreed to stop. They decided to record one last take of the orchestra without the vocals giving Stritch the chance to rest and come back early in the week to record the vocals over the orchestra track. The finale of the film features a revitalized Stritch, in full hair and makeup, in preparation for a Wednesday matinee performance of the show, nailing the song in one historic epic take that will live on in theatrical history.
That being said, there is a different rendition that also lives on in my personal history book, one that was created with wildly wise abandonment by director Marianne Elliott (National/Broadway’s revival of Angels in America) that opened in London’s West End in 2018. It should be called more of a remake than a revival as she dynamically played with gender and sexual orientation within the 1970’s ideal. The masculine center, Bobby baby, was changed to a female Bobbie baby, played delightfully with grace, humor, and determination by Rosalie Craig. The production also found added depth and invigoration by casting a gay male as the deathly afraid soon-to-be-wed ‘bride’, changing Amy into Jamie with one smart swipe, garnering Jonathan Bailey an Olivier Award just to secure and validate the delightful deed. Sondheim gleefully approved the changes and worked on revisions of the script with Elliott, finding a truth and vantage point that elevated the piece and maybe making an even more masterful masterpiece out of the tried and true original.
And I was there, thankfully, as the central purpose of my November 2018 trip occurred mainly because of the announcement that Sondheim’s Company was being revived in the West End. Not only that, one of my all-time favorites, Miss Broadway Queen herself, Patti LuPone (Gypsy, Sweeney Todd) was going to play the role of Joanne. Genius, is all I could have said when I read that. I admit that I have seen LuPone perform the famous, “The Ladies Who Lunch” before when she sang as part of a red-dressed ladies giving celebration to Sondheim’s 80th birthday (time flies, as he just celebrated his 90th this month). LuPone wondrously sang that song with a sweet nod directly to Stritch’s red hat stating, “I’ll drink to that!” and in London, I got my chance to do just that. Repeatedly.
LuPone, phenomenal in one of the first West End shows I ever saw, Les Miserables, once said in an interview that she is only interested in doing revivals if there is a unique and creative vision or a different slant to look at the heart of the piece (not a direct quote). In this London West End revival, Elliott certainly gave a compelling argument for Lupone to jump on board with this alternative vantage point. Elliot’s Bobbie is a thirty-four, turning thirty-five-year-old single female played meticulously well by the very talented Rosalie Craig (West End’s The Ferryman, National Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera). As with all previous Bobbys, this Bobbie finds it equally difficult to commit fully to a serious relationship, let alone the idea of marriage. It’s a compelling flip, ripe with possibilities and reformations. Company delivers forth, as tradition states, the five married couples, all Bobbie’s closest of friends, although one of the couples is gay and male (Bailey as Jamie and Alex Gaumond as Paul). Bobbie’s lovers, all now male (George Blagden as PJ, Richard Fleeshman as Andy, Matthew Seadon-Young as Theo), have something to say to Bobbie regarding her lack of commitment and engagement. It’s an epic and troubling whirlwind of internalized thoughts in manic smart motion. It remains as one of my favorite Sondheim pieces, and in this London revival, it continues the art of making art personal, expanding it into something even more relevant and timely than one could ever have hoped for or expected.
It’s a miraculous piece of writing and rewriting by composer Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), tweaking the lyrics and George Furth’s book to fit the flip and one that fills my mind with wonder at Sondheim’s brilliance of re-construction and subtlety in storytelling. He advances the story with each delicious line after each delicious reading of a lyric or verse. The male partners shine with “Sorry-Grateful“, beautifully and elegantly performed by Gavin Spokes as Sarah’s Harry, Richard Henders as Jenny’s David, and Ben Lewis as Joanna’s Larry. It gracefully entwines itself around the song and the structure, giving movement and emotional clarity to the devastating lyrics. Bobbie’s airline attendant boyfriend, Andy, played to perfection by Richard Fleeshman (West End/Broadway’s Ghost), delivers on their growing attachment with such depth and dimension. His male version of “dumb” April is delicate, fascinating, and not as sexist as before, bringing investment to his Andy that breathes simplicity and honor into the beautiful “Barcelona“, just as powerfully strong as Fleeshman’s chiseled abs and muscular physique.
LuPone’s Joanna strongly leads the couples through an exact and dramatically fun rendition of “The Little Things You Do Together“, and destroys the competition if there ever was one, when LuPone gives us her newest version of “Ladies Who Lunch” that is unlike any other, including her own. It feels honest and heartfelt in a way that I haven’t heard before and is deviously unique and detailed in thought and deconstruction. The whole cast clearly and wonderfully create versions of “Side by Side by Side” and the title song, “Company” that stick solid, but it’s all about the brilliant birthday girl Bobbie, with Craig beautifully delivering her Act One closer, “Marry Me a Little” and the breath-taking finale, “Being Alive“, tearing apart the house, almost, but not quite as well as Esparza did back in 2006.
In many ways, the gender-flip makes Company a more solid and contemporary piece of insightful musical theatre, deconstructing the limitations and preconceived notions that swirl around a 35-year-old single woman’s head. She should be married, thinking of starting a family, while keeping her career alive and her sexual body in shape, some may say. It’s a lot to ask for from anyone, and might just be considerably more relevant than being a bachelor in 2018. Bobbie’s sexuality remains entirely heterosexual and decidedly authentic, giving her freedom of choice and a particularly strong sense of self. In one scenario, her interactions with the handsome gay groom, Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) sing. Looking great in a pair of tight white pants, the young man Bailey freaks out most spectacularly in the funniest and brilliantly performed “Getting Married Today“, more beautifully realized and emotionally dense than before. It’s definitely, as it plays forward, far less creepy than when Jamie is Amy, because when Bobbie suggests marriage to Jamie, it resonates on a far more authentic and interesting aura. Bobbie is right because if they do, everyone will just leave them alone and carry on as if the party had never ended. It’s a compelling connection that is being explored rather than when the male Bobby suggests the same to his best friend’s bride-to-be. That moment always seemed a bit creepy and somewhat rude to his good male friend. Beyond the more politically correct arrangement, Bailey’s performance shines incredibly bright in his well crafted earth-shattering melt-down performance, giving us one of the funniest serious deliveries I’ve seen. He self-destructs his way past his loving and patient partner Paul’s heart with the most hurtful statement on love with a politically vibrant and timely cry of “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should“. This scene is everything and this Company and it’s Bobbie leaps beyond the original into a stronger universe of understanding and meaning.
The main question that I had when walking into London’s Gielgud Theatre, was how they would walk the tightrope around Joanne’s final plot-twisting proposition to what she believes to be a relationship-phobic Bobbie. In the original, this rich wife and strong woman suggest that Bobby should become her kept-lover. So how would Joanne push Sondheim’s new female Bobbie to arrive at the astonishing realization and say the important line, “but who will I care for?” In pre-show discussions with other theatre junkies, I thought that Bobbie needed to be bisexual in nature for Joanne’s proposition to work, and it would if they formulated Bobbie’s sexuality into something that is more fluid and bi-curious. That opportunity could reside within the relationship to the feisty PJ/Marta, one of the more edgy lovers of Bobbie, portrayed in Elliot’s version by George Blagden (Theatre Royal’s Tartuffe). That part could have been played by a woman, giving Bobbie a more open sexuality that would allow a progressive “not so hard to be married” Joanne to want to find her own brand of freedom in Bobbie’s bed. It could have been a compelling and fascinating exploration of power and sexuality in the modern world (and from what I hear through the grape-vine, LuPone suggested it more than once).
To be honest, although Blagden is fun as the narcissist PJ, his performance of the glorious song “Another Hundred People” is the weakest point in the generally strong production. That in itself is amazing as that song is one of the most fascinating and complex. I was crossing my fingers when I heard, not surprisingly, that this gender-bending production was flying over to Broadway this spring. This stubble has a new opportunity to rise up to its potential. That is if things in the world hadn’t shifted so dark and stormy. Elliot’s revitalized Company would have been open by now, this time with the breathtakingly amazing Katrina Lenk (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) taking over as the new Bobbie baby, with LuPone sitting right next to her, dazzling us all with every breath she takes. But we must be patient, and hold our breath, knowing that this version of Company has to and must land once again on Broadway. And I’ll be there, press tickets in hand, ready to be wowed again by this strong and invigorating recreation. I can not wait to embrace it once again for its inventiveness and bravado, especially in the very stupendously talented hands of Lenk, LuPone, and all the other talented souls that wait offstage for their entrance, eagerly and hopeful, all led by the genius of Elliott. It’s a subway car of more than one hundred people that I anxiously await to get off the train at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on West 45th Street. “Bobbie is my hobby” but I am damned if I’m going to give her up. I can wait. Fingers crossed.
Stay safe. Stay home. Until the day we can return.