Broadway’s Gender-Swapping Company Elevates Itself to Rises Up and Cheer

Katrina Lenk in Company on Broadway. Photo by Ahmed Klink.

The In-Person Broadway Experience: Sondheim’s Company

My Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC, Part 5

By Ross

Everybody rise! Rise!” And I couldn’t agree more. The notion of Company, as told by Sondheim in his book “Finishing The Hat“, is all about a character, with no emotional commitments, reassessing the thirty-five-year life lived so far by reviewing the relationships of the married friends and love interests that gather together for a surprise birthday party in honor of Bobby or, in this case, Bobbie. “That is the entire plot,” he writes, noting the non-linear conceptualization with a daring sense of challenge, frivolity, and fun. In his impressively detailed book, and when Company was first presented in 1970, the lead character was most definitively a male who goes by the name of Bobby; “Bobby baby. Bobby bubi. Robby. Robert Darling.” Take your pick. Raul Esparza certainly did, grabbing hold of the character with an aggressive vigor that truly inspired, helped along by director John Doyle in their well-received revival of the show back in 2006. Together, they turned it into a compelling musical-revitalizing show about internal processing, vulnerability, and growth, circling around the lead’s impulse, as if they all were electrons moving down pathways inside of his brain. But the question of the day is how would it all go down if Bobbie was reassigned as a straight female instead of this 1970s bachelor? Would it all still make sense? Or could it possibly make even more sense than the original formulation? This production was determined to find out one way or the other.

Katrina Lenk, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Nikki Renee Daniels in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In many ways, the surprising new, reconfigured revival makes this Broadway production of Company a much more solid and contemporary piece of insightful musical theatre than it ever was before, giving the show a wild and wonderful opportunity to deconstruct the limitations and preconceived notions that swirl around a thirty-five-year-old single woman’s head. Especially in this day and age. Sadly, many would wonder why this woman isn’t married by now, why she isn’t thinking about starting a family or having kids at this moment in her life, all while simultaneously demanding of her to keep her career alive and her sexual body in shape.  It’s a lot to ask for, from anyone to be honest, regardless of gender, but amazingly, this West End transfer revival is determined to ask those questions sharply, and in doing so, become a far more relevant musical in 2021 than it ever was before, particularly after the year and a half we just went through, on all fronts.

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 me with wonder at the late Sondheim’s openness and brilliance of re-construction in his storytelling. It is his love for experimentation, formed early on in his illustrious career, that I’m assuming helped him find his way through, advancing the story with each delicious line after line after line, and finding a way to improve and realign each delicious reading of a lyric or verse. The whole reformation project gracefully entwines itself around the songs and the structures, courtesy of musical supervisor and music director, Joel Fram (Broadway’s Wicked), giving new movement and emotional clarity to all of the devastatingly ironic and witty lyrics and ideals.

Katrina Lenk (center) and the company of Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Squeezed most beautifully into the confined lit-up boxes of a single female’s life in NYC, Bobbie and Company have miraculously risen from the COVID ashes and reignited the Broadway stage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Thrillingly staged with style and precision by designer Bunny Christie’s (National/St. Ann’s People, Places and Things), the set and the production almost seem smarter and stronger than the West End production that won a slew of awards when it played at the Gielgud Theatre in 2018. Jammed most inventively into a few tight and claustrophobic sliding squares alongside the shifting and floating Company letters that seem made for NYC, the piece looks as sharp and smart as Furth’s updated book and Sondheim’s music and lyrics. I’m a bit disappointed that the gender specificity of Bobbie’s sexuality remains entirely heterosexual, but the shifting of a gendered perspective does give her the freedom of choice and a particularly strong sense of self. It elevates the piece from some pretty intense bits of misogyny – just watch the Doyle revival on YouTube and try not to squirm in discomfort as I most recently did with each stereotypical assumption negatively made of many of the female characters. Esparza elevated that revival to incredible heights, while also unearthing a new way to look at the musical’s internalized process of having actually no plot. This is true, and similar to Sam Mendes’s more intimate 1996 London production that turned its eye in on Robert’s emotional struggle far more so than the original one ever did. That 1970 production, directed by Harold Prince, seemed less about how Bobby’s mind was working, and more on the couples’ stories, just like its source material, George Furth’s eleven brief one-act plays written in the later 1960s.

In 2018, I organized a November trip to London, specifically because of the announcement that Sondheim’s Company was being revived in the West End with one of my all-time favorites, Patti LuPone (Gypsy, Sweeney Todd) playing the part of Joanne, one made famous by Elaine Stritch back in the original Broadway production. I’ve seen LuPone perform “The Ladies Who Lunch” numerous times, particularly when she sang it as part of a red-dress- ladies tribute giving celebration to Sondheim’s 80th birthday. LuPone wondrously sang the song with a sweet nod directly to Stritch’s red hat stating quite marvelously, “I’ll drink to that!” LuPone was also seen in the role opposite Neil Patrick Harris in the 2011 New York Philharmonic concert version, one I missed live but watched with joy as I streamed it from somewhere into my living room while cursing the world for allowing me to miss it. Now in London, directed by the wise and creative Marianne Elliott (National’s Rules for Living, West End/Broadway’s Angels in America), the iconic musical was going to get another chance of rediscovery; reveling and redesigning itself under the watchful eye of this inventive director. The musical has forever been breaking boundaries, but with this production, it broke the mold that ultimately needed to be broken, and now, finally making its way to Broadway, we get our chance to take in its wonder. Company has finally come home.

Katrina Lenk in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

With an entirely new cast, except, of course for Patti LuPone who continues to strengthen her attachment to the part, the company of Company has delivered a new way of being and maybe a new purpose for the musical’s existence. Watching the Esparza revival after watching the current revival really made me sit up and take notice. Man, oh, man. There are just so many moments when the female characters are belittled; treated and viewed in a negative demeaning manner, sometimes slightly, but other times pretty overtly. I was shocked that I had never felt that sharp edge before, but that’s the power of Elliott’s illuminating production. She doesn’t just change the lead’s gender, but deconstructs the whole to find something that is more balanced and fair, and in a way more meaningful to the world we now inhabit.

LuPone once said in an interview that she is not really interested in doing revivals, especially if there is no unique or creative vision at its core that makes it seem necessary. She wants a raison d’être or at least a different slant to the piece (this is not a direct quote). Lucky for us all, inside Elliott’s vision, LuPone certainly found the compelling argument to jump on board. Elliot’s Bobby is magnificently restructured, with a blessing and a bit of a rewrite from Sondheim into the gender-swapping framework of Bobbie, a thirty-four, turning thirty-five-year-old single female played meticulously well by one of my favorites, Katrina Lenk. As with all previous Bobbys, this Bobbie finds it equally difficult to commit fully to a serious relationship, let alone the idea of marriage, but being a female, the whole thing carries an added layer or weight. She cringes and shies away from the argument, giving the gendered landscape the flip the musical needs to be relevant. Ripe with possibilities and reformations, Company delivers forth five married couples, all Bobbie’s closest of friends, although one now is a gay male couple; the adorable Jamie and his steadfast partner, Paul, played to perfection by Matt Doyle (Broadway’s Spring Awakening) and Etai Benson (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit). And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Claybourne Elder, Manu Narayan, and Bobby Conte in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Each of the pairs are given a moment to shine and engage in a debate of sorts with Bobbie through vignettes in no particular chronological order, all circling around the beautiful complications and ugly truth of marriage and partnership. The most solid being the magical “Sorry-Grateful” number, beautifully performed by the husbands; Christopher Sieber (Broadway’s The Prom) as Harry, Christopher Fitzgerald (Broadway’s Waitress) as David, and Terence Archie (Broadway’s Ragtime) as Larry. In another twist of the gender theme, Bobbie’s lovers are now, not surprisingly in this very hetero-happy narrative, all male; embodied by the delicious Bobby Conte (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale) as PJ, the handsome Claybourne Elder (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…) as Andy, and the intriguing Manu Narayan (Broadway’s Gettin’ the Band…) as Theo. They each have something to say to Bobbie regarding her lack of commitment and engagement, and together they deliver a great door-slamming “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” “Bobby is my hobby, and I’m giving it up!

It’s LuPone’s Joanna that leads us strongly into the couples’ complications through an exact and dramatically fun rendition of “The Little Things You Do Together.“ The glib smartness of the lyrics rings true in her amused presentation, sung to perfection, “Mm-hm” as we watch one couple, Sarah and Harry, played strongly by Jennifer Simard (Broadway’s Mean Girls) and Sieber, battle it out for supremacy. “It’s not so hard to be married,” she and the company of Company sings, although it’s her follow-up line, “I’ve done it three or four times” that gives the punch to the puzzle. Later in the production, LuPone rises up strong to the occasion, destroying the competition, if there is one, with her breathtakingly smart turn on “Ladies Who Lunch.” It is unlike any other, including her own, feeling deadly honest and heartfelt in a way that I haven’t heard before. The performance is deviously unique and compellingly detailed in thought and deconstruction, leading the way forward to the emotional crack in Bobbie’s stalemate of the heart.

Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Katrina Lenk, and Patti LuPone in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

But, in reality, it is all about the brilliant birthday girl Bobbie, and even though she doesn’t get her candlelight wish, as the rules say, Lenk stands tall in the center of this storm, delivering her Act One closer, “Marry Me a Little” and the finale-to-end-all finales, “Being Alive“, with strength and commitment. She soars high and strong, doing her best to tear down the house, and she almost does, but not quite as intensely as Esparza did back in 2006. This is a fact that I’m not that thrilled to say, to be honest. But the same could be said about Rosalie Craig (National Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera) in the West End production. Lenk is one of the most talented women on Broadway today, easily morphing herself into every part she has taken on. I mean, just watch her in Broadway’s The Band’s Visit and Paula Vogel’s Broadway play, Indecent. It’s an astounding engulfment to bear witness to. In Company, her voice is as gorgeous as ever, filling the space easily with a beautiful presence and star quality, but somewhere along the way, her Bobbie never really finds the grit or the intensity needed to make those moments devastatingly engaging. She’s charming and captivating, but never grabs hold of you firmly enough to take our eyes off the star-powered performances happening all around her. It’s a shame because everything is there for her to take full advantage of, but for some reason, her powerhouse songs fail to shine as bright as we were all wanting and waiting so desperately for.

The whole cast is clearly behind her though, performing majestically in her honor, wonderfully creating exciting musical chair versions of “Side by Side by Side” for our pleasure. The gloriously infusive title song, “Company” sticks solid and clear in an arena made perfect for the presentation, most delicately lit by Neil Austin (Broadway’s Travesties), with sound design by Ian Dickinson (National’s Hangman), and illusions by Chris Fisher (Harry Potter…). Specifically, Bobbie’s airline attendant boyfriend, Claybourne Elder’s Randy, wait, I mean Andy, as opposed to the original flight attendant June, I mean, April, is tremendous, delivering a growing attachment with such depth and dimension that I was male struck, and not just by Elder’s impressive good looks. His version of “dumb” is as delicate and fascinating as one could hope for, elevating the character while bringing an added investment to his Andy that breathes simplicity into the beautiful “Barcelona“. Bobbie’s third boyfriend (we’ll get to number two in a bit), Theo, played well by Narayan, isn’t given that much to do beyond a lovely, sweet scene that registers, much like Rashidra Scott’s (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) Susan and Greg Hildreth’s (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo) Peter as the seemingly perfect couple who are about to get divorced and live happily ever after together. They wonderfully deliver their connection, but beyond that particular formulation and idea, they aren’t really given a true vocal moment to shine before shifting on to another couple.

Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the questions I had walking in with, was how well they would walk the tightrope around Joanne’s final plot-twisting proposition she makes to the relationship-phobic Bobbie. In the original, this rich and strong woman, wife to Larry, suggests that Bobby should become her kept-lover, but I wondered, especially when I first saw it in London, was how would Joanne push Sondheim’s new female Bobbie over the edge, bringing her to the astonishing realization that would prompt her to say that ever-important line, “but who will I care for?” In London, I fantasized that maybe Bobbie could be bisexual making Joanne’s proposition work, and it would, that is if they had already formulated Bobbie’s sexuality into something that is more fluid and bi-curious.  I contemplated that the quick opportunity could reside with the feisty PJ, lover number two and the more emotionally disconnected lover of Bobbie. PJ’s song, one of the most fascinating and complex in the show, and the one Sondheim wrote specifically for the original Marta, Pamela Myers to sing, “Another Hundred People” slides its way into this revival with an electric motored ease, looping the stories of Bobbie’s lovers together in a complex dance of integration. Performed by the magnificently magnetic and sexy Conte, the song and the production sparkles bright in a brand new New York reconfiguration that alphabetically improves upon itself with every turn of the letters. The song itself is a dynamic engagement, elevated by the revitalized reinvention by choreographer Liam Steel (Delacorte Theater’s Into the Woods), and even though it is really the only song that isn’t about love or marriage, it is the number about possibility and adventure in the thrilling world of NYC, this musical’s true home.

But, and give me a moment to play this out (and get back to my point), what would it have been like if PJ was played by a woman, giving Bobbie a more open sexuality that would allow a progressive Joanne to want to find her own brand of freedom in Bobbie’s bed. I envisioned someone like Angel Desai who was utterly magnificent in the part in the 2006 revival (check her out here) leading the way. LuPone certainly could have pulled that powerplay off, and it would have been a compelling and fascinating exploration of control and sexuality in the modern world (and from what I hear through the grapevine, it was an idea suggested by and to LuPone more than once). But it is not to be, at least just yet. As it stands now in this revival, the proposal feels convoluted, and much more difficult to swallow than one of Joanna’s vodka stingers.

Overall, the crossing of gender hair works magnificently well throughout the show. The reversal of squares, flipping Fitzgerald’s David and his wife Jenny, deliciously portrayed by Nikki Renée Daniels (Broadway’s Hamilton) in a delight, miraculously redefining the fun pot-smoking scene by dismissing an awkward stereotype and misogynist construct that when watching the 2006 revival made me feel very uncomfortable for its demeaning intention. But switching the task and making David the square erases the complication, and shifts the focus back to where it should be, on Bobbie’s contemplations and emotional crisis that’s looming up ahead.

Etai Benson and Matt Doyle in Company on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Another that works extremely well is gifting the deliciously talented Matt Doyle the role of Jamie, the gay groom having a meltdown over warm orange juice and commitment. Looking and sounding beyond great, Doyle freaks out spectacularly in one of the funniest and most brilliantly performed (and written) numbers in the show, “Getting Married Today.“ Beautifully realized and emotionally dense, Doyle’s performance shines incredibly bright in his well-crafted earth-shattering performance, giving us one of the funniest, most serious performances of this song I’ve seen. He self-destructs his way past his loving and patient partner Paul’s heart with the most hurtful statement on love in the show, crying out a politically vibrant and timely plea of “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should“.  And then, when Bobbie proposes, once it seems clear that no wedding is going to happen here today, the energy in the room prickles. Bobbie is right, in a way, to suggest such a crazy idea, because if they do, everyone will just leave them alone and carry on as if the party had never ended. It’s a win/win but also a loss, with a far more compelling connection being explored than when the male Bobby suggests the same to his best friend’s bride-to-be Amy. Sorta creepy, Raul, if you ask me.

Katrina Lenk as Bobbie in Company on Broadway. Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg.

Utilizing a staging that only gets better as the show struts confidently forward, this scene and the complicated engagement within is the moment when this Company and its Bobbie, gal pal to Jamie, leaps beyond the original into a stronger universe of understanding and meaning. It is happening all in and around Bobbie’s thirty-fifth birthday, a surprise party no less, that is setting the stage for an epic whirlwind of thought and manically smart motion. The deep internal psychology of that process of Bobbie’s self-discovery is what makes this musical one of Sondheim’s best, and with this smart reinvention lodged securely inside Elliot’s game-changing revival, the high-flying concept expands this show into something even more relevant and timely than one could ever have hoped for or expected. It sheds decades of misogyny and the demeaning stereotypes of women, and by doing so, Sondheim and Elliott give this show a new sense of glory and wonderment. So rise up. This Company has been elevated, and I hope it never comes back down.

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