Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tim Burton: Batman Returns (1992)

Batman was indisputably one of the biggest box office smashes of the 1980's and director Tim Burton was given the lion's share of the credit (and rightly so.) When the inevitable sequel was produced the director was awarded a level of control and trust that is rare within the mainstream studio system. Burton could pretty much do whatever he wanted. The result: a truly bizarre and unique Burton blockbuster (emphasis on the Burton) that pushed the boundaries of the genre even as it failed within them. Batman Returns was a box office hit to be sure, but on a much smaller scale than the original. Perhaps audiences were turned off by the films glum tone or it's overly fussy and complicated plot. Unrelentingly psychological, Batman Returns is totally flaccid as an action movie; the director seemingly having little patience for the elaborate and repetitive choreography that such sequences require. Instead the film functions as a study in the mental instability of it's main character; a better title would have been Batman: Deconstructed.

Dualities are everywhere. Metaphors of masks abound. Gotham city itself is turned into a theater of Freudian psychodrama. When I first saw the movie I was put-off by the abundance of villains in the piece- there are no less than three. I felt my focus being pulled in too many directions. What I now realize is that these three figures represent different aspects of Batman's psyche; his fight with them is actually his internal struggle with his own demons. Indeed we can see these characters as the classic Freudian modalities of Id, Ego and Superego.

For the Id we have the Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot (played by a snarling, barking Danny DeVito, channeling Burgess Meredith by way of Cujo). A brutal monster, lacking impulse control as much as he does dental hygiene, the Penguin is Batman's primary foe in Batman Returns, but even more importantly he is Wayne's inner darkness distilled and given a fetid, abhorrent form. The importance of animal imagery is pronounced: the Penguin is not human-he knows he is a monster..."I am an animal. Cold-Blooded!" As the penguin says to Batman "You're just jealous because I'm a real freak and you have to wear a mask." Biographically however, the Penguin is Bruce Wayne's dark doppelganger. Born into privileged homes, both were "abandoned" by their parents at a young age-an event that defines each mans identity. At a press conference where he visits the grave of his parents, the villain declares them forgiven as Bruce Wayne looks on. But, their absolution is a publicity stunt. Bruce Wayne too has not forgiven his parents for leaving him; he represses his anger toward them by punishing the criminals who took them from him allowing his parents to stay innocent (which of course they were, but this about irrational emotion here), a fetish of their memory is what remains. But Wayne's Id, it's desire to confront the feelings of resentment, get an outlet with the Penguin. There is a caveat. Cobblepot can only exist fully as a vile, uncontrollable monster, literally dwelling beneath Gotham, just as Wayne's monstrous animal id hides in the recesses of his mind, or least in his Batcave. When the feelings rise up to the surface and show themselves, pandemonium ensues.

Wayne's Ego is the corrupt billionaire industrialist Max Shreck, played to smarmy perfection by Christopher Walken in a fright wig. This is the public face of Wayne: rich, charming and successful. The interesting thing about the addition of this character is that, along with completing the Freudian trifecta, for the only time in the Batman movies is Wayne's guilt regarding his wealth even alluded to, however elliptically. Though he wears no mask, Shreck is as duplicitous a character as Wayne-legitimate business man by day and corrupt robber baron by night. Though with Shreck the duality is almost totally submerged- his villainy a natural extension of his profession. As Michael Atkinson points out in his Village Voice review of "Batman Begins," the Batman movies have always ignored any possible connection between the squalor and crime in Gotham city and Wayne's profession as a ludicrously wealthy business man. Though this level of social commentary is not realized in Batman Returns (or any Tim Burton movie), it is at least alluded to with Shreck. (Also alluded to is the cinema of German expressionism where the lead in Nosferatu was played by none other than one Max Shreck. And the Penguin is pure Caligari. But this is all neither here nor there.)

Finally we have a truly fascinating character played by Michelle Pfeiffer (in her best screen performance): Catwoman. Burton's only true successful female character (until Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd) and his only foray into matters sexual, Catwoman is pure Super-ego. As Lacanian film theorist and philosopher Slovaj Zizek has often noted, the super-ego is not a moral agency. It is consuming voice that constantly and relentlessly bellows irrational demands on it's agent. Perhaps most interesting is Zizek's assertion that the Super-ego is connected deeply with the Id, the two aspects of the psyche being delicately reflective of each other. Norman Bates taking the corpse of his mother from the Super-ego attic to the Id basment is Zizek's example of a potent cinematic representation of this connection. In Batman Returns we can find another. Like the Penguin, but unlike Shreck, the Catwoman, like the Penguin (and like Batman for that matter) is an animal image.

Extremely articulate, undeniably witty and unabashedly sexual, the Catwoman is the Super-ego run amok, having totally discarded all pretense of social normality. Her first big battle with Batman occurs, appropriately, on a rooftop, just as the Super-ego sits at the highest level of subjectivity. Catwoman is also the nexus of Wayne's central neurotic predicament for she, unlike the Penguin or Shreck, is constantly fighting with her dual nature, the madness of her psychology displayed in the films most memorable scene where Selina destroys her pink-hued apartment and transforms into Catwoman. When she kills Shreck in the films dark final scene she finalizes the death of her and Wayne's Ego, preferring instead to remain the animal that she has become. And though the Penguin dies in this same moment, he is thematically returned to the subconscious, hidden in the sewers of Wayne's mind. Batman's attempts at reconciling his psychic traumas have been unsuccessful and even destructive. There seems little hope that Wayne will ever move beyond his schizophrenic predicament. Though he has once again saved Gotham, this, the real central conflict of the film, is not a setup for, as the Catwoman says, "A Happy Ending."

With Catwoman Burton also dabbles in sexual politics. Selina Kyle is a highly gendered character when we first meet her. Passive, pathetic, soft-spoken and sexually inert. "Hi Honey I'm home..oh that's right I'm not married" is her lament upon every return to her feminine apartment. Her lack of a "man" troubles her and at the same time defines her. Catwoman is a Betty Friedan nightmare, a dangerous castrating creature of menace powered by rocket fuel estrogen. With her S&M get-up of shiny pleather and her sybaritic line deliveries that practically echo Mae West-this Catwoman is more vagina than pussy.

As one can imagine, Bruce Wayne gets lost in the shuffle. The whole movie being a
representation of his psyche, Wayne is even more of a cipher here than he was in the first film. The few moments of character development allowed the talented Mr. Keaton are in relation to his budding romance with Selina Kyle, a duality again mirrored by Batman's more overtly sexual and violent meetings with Catwoman. The slight humor Wayne displayed in the first Batman is blunted even as the movies tone verges farther toward the whimsical.

Though Batman Returns is a far less comic film than it's often witty predecessor, it's mise en scene has a far more macabre frivolity. Returns is, in every way, more Burton's films than Batman was and his signature touches threaten to overtake the whole movie, for better or for worse. After Anton Furst committed suicide during pre-production Burton turned to his Scissorhands collaborator Bo Welch for production design. If Furst made Gotham into a mysterious expressionistic cesspool, Welch turns the city into a Transylvanian carnival. Color is everywhere, pronounced all the more by the surrounding darkness. Equally abundant is white snow. Setting the story at Christmastime has to be a sick joke of some sort; it adds nothing to the plot.
Burton's always been more Gorey than gory and in Returns his penchant for curlicue trimmings kills the sense of dark menace and urban blight that epitomized Furst's Gotham. It's no wonder that Batman battles a gang of demented circus clowns; who else to populate Burton's circus of Hell? With all the clowns running around in the white blankets of snow the mood can get deciedly Cirque Du Soleil. Also ratcheting up the sideshow aura is Danny Elfman's score which, although featuring some of his best work (Selina's transformation again is a highlight), is nevertheless oppressively heavy on the creepy-yet-innocent choir of "ooh's and laah's" that Elfman finds so fetching. In Burton, always afraid to have a moment on screen without oppressive musical accompaniment does nothing to reign him in. The original Batman hinted that Elfman could become the new John Williams, with Returns he negates any such ambition; he is simply so wrapped up in his own sound that that is all he, and the audience of a Tim Burton movie, can hear.

Obviously, Batman Returns is an interesting movie--much more so than almost anyone gives it credit for, including myself until I started thinking about it. Playing as it does on complicated psychological and sexual issues, a box office fallout was inevitable. It's important to remeber that though that, out of the shoadow of the previous iteration, Batman Returns was still amazingly successful. Perhaps the name brand recognition was still hot enough to secure an impressive release, or perhaps the films themes were subtextual enough to not sink the whole thing under the weight of it's own metaphoric import (see: The Hulk, dir. Ang Lee). Whatever the reason, the movie made a lot of money but it's comparative failure to the earlier Batman I can't help but to believe came about by it's somewhat serious engagement with the issues that I have noted in this review. The result was one of the more disappointing entries in the now tirelessly burgeoning genre of Superhero film, but one of the greatest (though flawed) entries in Burton's oeuvre. It's without question a film worth watching again.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sondheim: Follies (1971)

It could never happen again. It should have never happened at the time. The unbelievably extravagant, exceedingly expensive and ridiculously ambitious 1971 musical Follies was a musical perhaps doomed to failure.  Shockingly downbeat, Follies marked the end of a Broadway that sparkled with glamour and fantasy, ushering in a new area of cynicism and modernity. It was another experiement in creating a whole new kind of musical. Follies began in the mind of Stephen Sondheim as a murder mystery called "The Girls Upstairs." After much reworking, and with Hal Prince's guiding hand, the show transformed into a massive eulogy for youth, hope and old "42nd Street" showbiz.  Inspired by a startling photograph of Gloria Swanson amid the wreckage of an abandoned, dilapidated theatre, Follies is set at the first, and last, reunion party for Weissman's Follies (a transparent Ziegfield stand-in) before the old theatre gets torn down. As one character barbs, "Just what this city needs, another parking lot."  Specifically focusing on two middle-aged former Follies girls and their stage-door Johnny husbands, (Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, respectively) we are invited to luxuriate in the destructive dynamics and long stewing resentments of two collapsing marriages. Old romances are rekindled (and discarded); hopes for the future are shown futile.  Through the metaphors of show-biz, these domestic dramas are elevated into the more universal crisis of age and loss.  A true concept musical, the action plays on a dream stage where the ghosts of the past literally share space with the harsh realities of the present.  

There are two kinds of music in Follies. Most transparent are the pastiche; songs written deliberately in the manner of the tin pan alley tunesmiths of the 20's and 30's.  The other songs are uniquely Sondheim-esque and contemporary.   All are brilliant. In Follies Sondheim was able to display his complete mastery of theatre music, tossing off Irving Berlin and George Gershwin homages that often outdid their real inspirations.  Better yet, Sondheim's lyrics in these pastiche numbers worked on two levels: they are fully believable as period pieces and they also subtly comment on the action, providing discomfiting irony to each musical moment.  No where is this more obvious than in the Act-one showstopper "Who's that Woman."  As the aging chorus girls sing a cheery bouncy dance number, the lyrics cut to the quick. "Who's that woman?/That cheery, weary woman/Who's dressing for yet one more spree?/Each day I see her pass/In my looking-glass--/Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me! "  As they dance with their old selves, the ladies "mirror" image becomes all the more poignant-their feeble attempt at dancing more pathetic.   Even the grand opening, a parody of Irving Berlin's Follies classic "A Pretty Girl" called "Beautiful Girls" has a more than subtle hint of the pathetic and grotesque to it,-as all the old, wrinkled, heavy and frail former Follies girls parade down the staircase one last time, nostalgia quickly transforms to sadness and disgust.

Eventually the regrets and recriminations of the the four main characters comes to a head, boiling over and transforming the stage into a new and one-of-a-kind show; a full-fledged Follies of psychological dysfunction and released repression.   As each of the main characters has their moment in the spotlight the futility of the entire endeavor becomes more and more obvious. Eventually invoking a nervous collapse from Ben, the stage becomes awash in a cacophony of noise-all the characters bellowing while the orchestra thrashes in a nonsenical din.  Leaving the party with the spouses they came with, the characters may leave wiser for the wear-but happiness remains nonetheless an elusive dream.

A massive cast, an incredible orchestra, costumes opulent beyond any seen since--Follies was one of the most expensive shows Broadway had ever seen.  All this to service a show that, as described above, leaves it's audience less than joyful.  The critics that disliked the show focused on Williams Goldman's book which they saw as petty.  Why would anyone want to spend an evening with these four sad pathetic people who spend a whole show complaining and bitching with each other about events long since passed? The point is not without insight but what those critics missed is the more universal and powerful thematic ideas facilitated by this plot. No, the characters don't really change or grow, but that is, of course, the point.  Sondheim and Price simply weren't interested in playing by the rules. The shows most insightful review was written by a Harvard student, a precocious young fellow named Frank Rich.  He had already written his place in the history of criticism with a line that epitomized Follies raison d'etre: "There is no getting around the fact, that a large part of the chilling fascination of `Follies' is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral."

Follies did not recoup it's invest despite a run of 522 performances on Broadway.  A National tour also fizzled early.  Ever since, the show has achieved a legendary status, not only for the brilliance of it's score but for the perfection and unattainable opulence of the original production.  Chronicled in the book "Everything Was Possible" by Ted Chapin, the history of Follies is mythic among theatre aficionados and for good reason.  But this has not stopped people from attempting to remount the show and make it a viable entertainment once again.  A star-studded 1985 concert with Mandy Patinkin, Barbara Cook, George Hearn and Lee Remick cemented Follies status as one of the most brilliant scores in Broadway history.  The 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse Production dared to ask if a fully mounted revival could succeed. The answer seemed to be a resounding "yes!"  Critic swooned. When an slimmed down revival appeared on Broadway in 2001, the results were underwhelming.  Once again Follies proved a classic problem play, unrelentingly interesting but stubbornly unproducable.  The recent critical and commercial success of another concert staging, this time at City Center Encores, stirred up discussions of yet another possible try for Broadway gold-but so far no official word has confirmed the chatter.  

And probably for the best.  Follies will never be a commercial success; it's subject matter too bleak, it's financial demands too great.  In a concert staging, pressures are lessened and the imagination takes hold, closing the gaps that a real production would have to fill.   For those who saw it, memories of the original persist.  For those who didn't, like Bobofag, the idea of a fully realized Follies is probably better than the real thing.  Follies remains a frustrating, sad, dark and numbingly brilliant musical, all the more enticing for it's many flaws.  It's unrealistic demands of production and it's taxing emotional experience for the audience make Follies better imagined than real.  Like a young child staring at his beautifully wrapped Christmas gift, the toy itself can never quite live up to the anticipation.  


The infamous concert where she collapsed. Get better Liza, we love you!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bad Marketing Ideas

Believe it or not, only one of these is a fake. Can you guess which? I'll give you a hint, it's not the one that bought advertising time during Project Runway (raise of eyebrow).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kant '08

Bobofag proudly admits that he was once a nerdy philosophy minor in college. His thinking still occasionally drifts toward the metaphysic and epistemic. So he did laugh most heartily when he saw this attack ad on youtube. Good Kantian that he is, Bobfag does not endorse it's contents:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bobofag loves Frank Gehry.

I made my first pilgrimage to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last night, and it provided me as close to religious sensations as a secular gayboy can hope for. I was in no secret way obsessed with Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim museum ever since I first saw pictures of it in the 90's. Whether one viewed it as the climax and pinnacle of the 20th Century's Architectural Narrative or the Beginning of the 21st's (for surely it was one of those two) The Guggenheim was, by any measure, breathtaking. Though I have not had the good fortune to see Bilbao's great new tourist attraction, I had been chomping at the bit to go inside Gehry's Concert Hall in downtown LA, a building that was planned before the Guggenheim and resembles the structure in style and material. At least on the outside. Before last night I knew I loved the Concert Hall's exterior: an elegant and disorienting scrap of tangled silver metal which looks entirely different from any particular vantage point. More enlightening however than playing peek-a-boo Rashomon with the outside is stepping into the Hall itself. My fears that the Concert Hall was just "Guggenheim-lite" were totally unfounded.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall may be the best place in the world to listen to orchestral music, period. (I say "orchestral" because referring to the entirety of symphonic music as "classical" does a disservice to both the music and the listener. The Classical period is a specific time in music history sandwiched between the Baroque and the Romantic. Smothering centuries of musical history with the fusty title of "Classical" can only serve to further keep the fine arts in the realm of the pretentious bourgeoisies, divorced from the life of the proles below. No doubt some would have it that way, but only because their enjoyment of "classical music" is predicated by the sense of superiority they receive by listening to it. I'll have none of it. I will not partake in pushing, though nomenclature alone, average people away from enjoying amazing works of art. The ticket prices do a good enough job of keeping the riff-raff out, no? But I digress...) If Bilbao is anyone near as effective a place to see works of art as The Disney Concert Hall is a place to hear great works of music it would have to be a gallery in competition with the Louvre and MOMA.

The first thing that strikes you about the room is it's warmth; light, smooth wood is everywhere and the fabric pattern on the seats is floral and decorative-tres Californian too. The orchestra is seated in what feels like the rooms center, with audience all around. In actuality it's probably about a fourth closer to the "back" wall with more audience facing the conductors back than his face-as it should be. The ceiling is devoid of sharp angles, the whole space above you curves and undulates-it looks like it's morphing. The effect is perfect and conceptual too; after all, what is music but waves? Behind the orchestra is a massive organ with pipes that spit out in gold. This is surrounded by large jumbled wood planks which, I couldn't help but notice, resemble oversize French Fries. For me, the only other piece of architecture that has this same burst of beauty and composition is the stained glass window behind the altar of St. Peter's in Rome. Whether or not these decorative elements were chosen for acoustic purposes I know not. I do know that the sound of the orchestra in this room was unparalleled in my experience. While the expression that "one could hear a pin drop" is a cliche, Gehry's masterwork gives it meaning. (Sadly, along with the subtleties of Schumann, every cough from the preponderantly geriatric crowd is equally amplified.) The program I saw last night had four works by Wagner, Beethoven, Dvorak and Strauss, respectively. The first and last were my favorite, (Strauss' way with a waltz is unique in emotional depth) but all sounded impeccable.

Most concert halls have the power to make an everyman feel like an aristocrat but Gehry's work here makes the aristocrat feel like an everyman. Such is the egalitarian and unpretentious (though hardly unambitious) design of the Disney Concert Hall. It is a sort of Stoddard Temple brought to life and updated for the 21st century. A secular cathedral built to exalt not the God's but the genius of man; with it's own congregation (subscribers) and tithing system (box office) the analogy is apt. Such is the success of this building that I'll take Frank Gehry over Notre Dame any day.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Big Mac...

Yes, today is the day of Atonement. No, it's not cause for a trip to the synagogue. Its the day the film version of Ian McEwan's much lauded novel hits the mega-plexes. Though it's still all the buzz for Oscar recognition, the reviews have been decidedly mixed, especially among the top tier critics. No matter, I'll probably pay my ten bucks anyway, even if the film is a pretentious, Merchant-Ivory poseur, war-time anglo-orgy. "Pourquoi?" you ask. My new favorite blimey boy toy James McAvoy is the star. Though I have only seen him in one movie (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) I think he's the cutest pin-up from across the pond since Paul Bettany shacked up with Russell Crowe. Somewhere Hugh Dancy is cursing the fates and looking for his stolen career. It's McAvoy's moment now. (Is it wrong I still find him sexiest as a goat?)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tim Burton: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Though Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd are probably better films, Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton's defining masterpiece as cinema auteur. Crystallizing and distilling the directors thematic preoccupations, Scissorhands is a remarkable achievment of artistic purity and personal expression.

The persona of Edward himself is Burton's cinematic avatar par excellence. With his wily main of black hair, emotional isolation and unique talents, Edward is a none-too subtle representation of Burton himself, or at least Burton as a child. The story is a fairy tale in unambiguous terms, with an eldery woman recounting the story to her young granddaughter the way one might Hansel and Gretel or the Ugly Duckling. Most of Burton's stories have been fairy tales of one kind or another but here his commitment to the narrative structure is total. As such, the world created for the movie is fully fantastical, though refracted from reality in clever and effective ways. The ludicrously colorful suburb that serves as the films location is nothing less than a fantasized (infantalized?) version of the Burbank neighborhood that Burton grew up in, though it is as unreal in design and detail as anything in Middle Earth. (Burton however asks us to embrace the fantasy as fantasy while Peter Jackson wants us to embrace it as real.) The Gothic castle where Edward is discovered, hilariously located just down the block, is a warehouse of Burton-ana, the whimsically macabre inner mind of pre-adolescent Burton, literally constructed in the middle of middle class domesticity. It anachronisity is, of course, comically massive, a reflection of Burton's depth of feeling about his own off-beat sensibility.

The plot of the movie is well known and so I won't go into much here except to say that Edward, the unfinished creation of an old, reclusive, inventor (Vincent Price in his last screen role) is discovered alone in his castle by a friendly Avon lady (a wonderful Dianne Wiest) who, seeing a helpless and lonely child, takes him in. As he becomes the town novelty, Edward attempts to fit into suburban life-he even falls in love with Weist's teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder)and she with him. Tides turn and Edward becomes manipulated by local hooligans, one of which is Kim's bully boyfriend Jim. Tensions escalate and finally Edward is driven back to his castle where, defending his love, his murders Jim and with him any chance to return to the world below.

The film marked the first collaboration between Depp and Burton and there is little question that in Depp Burton had found his muse. His performance is a beautiful and minimalist character study notable for it's voluminous expressiveness and almost total lack of dialogue. But performances in Scissorhands are all the service of the film's fully conceived production design by Bo Welch where fairy tale whimsy meets a toothless but effective form of social satire. The music by Danny Elfman is the composers supreme achievement, light and mysterious with innocent yet eerie choral passages (performed by what sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir)it is no coincidence that the Edward Scissorhands became a popular ballet by Matthew Bourne. So complete and successful is Elfman's score here that future endeavors would become an exercise in diminishing returns with the composer sounding either tonally monotonous (Batman Returns) or simply unmemorable (Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish). This of course is not helped by Burton's usual overuse of scoring for easy and oppressive emotional manipulation. In Scissorhands though, the music serves an invaluable ingredient to a meticulously crafted mise en scene.

Edward Scissorhands is a total externalization of Burton's internal emotional state, exemplified by the manifestation of scissors for hands. Edward's difference-his dangerous appendages-is also the thing that gives him his talents. Of course, so it goes with Burton, who has taken the macabre sensibility that isolated him as a child and turned it into a wildly successful film career. Perhaps Scisccorhands is an exorcising of Burton's fear that his difference would be his undoing;he locks Edward away for all time, alone in his castle, expunging the person he might have become. Edward ultimately couldn't survive amongst the mortals below, Burton figured out how. Almost uniquely innocent for a major motion picture not geared to children, Edward Scissorhands, for all it's personal quirks, is a story that a great many related to- we all feel a little bit of Edward inside. And that peice of us that has scissors for hands is a thing of beauty. As Edward sculpts a massive piece of ice, Kim lovingly dances in the impromptu snowflakes; Burton has given us one of the loveliest moments in American cinema.

Woody Supports the Writers Strike.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sondheim: Company (1969)

If there is one moment in Stephen Sondheim’s career that catapulted the writer from being a talented young tunesmith to the once and future king of the American musical it was in year 1969 and the shows title was Company. Nominated for more Tony Awards than any show in Tony history (a record it held until “The Producers” cleaned house in 2001) Company ushered in a new level of sophistication on Broadway; never before had a musical been so utterly modern and willing to buck convention. And never before had the distinct musical vocabulary of modern life merged with classic Broadway so effectively. The show also marked the first collaboration between Sondheim and the director Hal Prince, though Prince had produced many of his previous shows. The partnership went on to become one of the greatest artistic collaborations of the 20th Century. It all began with Company. Though somewhat mired in the sexual politics of it’s time, the show still speaks to audiences in the 21st Century, the brilliance of it’s music and lyrics untainted by time. The Tony-winning revival of the show in 2006 is proof positive of that.

Told in an “emotional narrative” that eschews traditional temporal linearity, Company was and is a textbook example of what some call “concept-musicals.” Any musical play that attempts to tell it’s story in a manner inconsistent with the Rodgers and Hammerstein mold could fit under this label though this description hardly does them justice. At their best, concept musicals arrive at the intersection of music, book and lyrics through an overarching dramatic idea (concept) that allows audiences to expand their expectations of what a musical is. A concept musical dares to reorganize the very DNA of musical theatre. Many, if not most, of Sondheim’s shows are conceptual in this way, perhaps none is so self-evidently so as Company. The music here is used as a counterpoint to bookwriter George Furth's self-contained comic scenes (which provided the genesis for the musical in the first place.) Characters rarely sing to each to each other and the “plot,” what there is of one, is not advanced by the songs in customary fashion. But unlike Forum, where the songs could be excised with little effect to the plot and comedy, Company is hollow and dramatically inert without it’s score.

Focusing on the romantic exploits (and non-exploits) of the perennially single “Bobby,” Company is an investigation into the topsy-turvy world of contemporary marriage and all its glorious ambiguity. Bobby’s journey is one of self-discovery- the subjective experience of opening oneself up to love (and pain) is actualized onstage. Alternating between scenes of Bobby socializing with his married friends (One is lonely/ Two is dreary/ Three is Company, /Safe and Cheery.) and romancing three single women, the dramatic core of Company is Bobby’s quest in deciding whether or not a married life is worth the emotional sacrifices that come part and parcel with the tux rental and wedding vows. The show is relentlessly honest (and funny) in its dissection of this antediluvian institution. All of it played against a nuanced and vibrant representation of New York City circa 1969. Each character has a musical moment which expresses their perspective on married life, from the resigned complaint of the married men who are “Sorry/Grateful,” about their lot, to a bride suffering a mental breakdown as she prepares to walk down the aisle. The musicalization of these moments vibrate with energy and wit. The lyrics are almost unmatched in the annals of American Musical Theatre. About what makes marriages work: "It’s not talk of God and the decade ahead/ that allow you to get through the worst. /It’s “I do” and “you don’t” and “nobobdy said/ that” and “Who Brought the subject up first?”/ It’s no surprise that the New York City public arts project called “Poetry in Motion” put the text to “Another Hundred People,” in it’s subway cars, right next to W.H. Auden and William Butler Yeats. The lyrics are that good. “Another Hundred People” is a reaction to living in the crowded metropolis where anonymity is all but guaranteed; everyone is disconnected in a "city of strangers." Unlike most songs about the Big Apple it dares to have a complicated and even melancholy perspective, though the song is, in its own way, a joyous celebration of the city it laments.

In it's denouement Bobby decides that, despite the inevitable disappointments and compromises that come with marriage, without commitment and love there is simply no other way for “Being Alive.” Climaxing with this number, some have accused Sondheim of copping-out; looking at marriage and relationships soberly and without mawkishness only to retreat to sentiment and sexual conservatism. Not naive to these sentiments, Sondheim himself wanted to end the show with a song in which Bobby decides that to be married is to live “happily ever after…in hell.” It was at the insistence of director/producer Hal Prince to end the show more unambiguously positive that Sondheim wrote his climatic aria. For my part, I think “Being Alive” is the perfect conclusion; a finale that denied the character this breakthrough- that would be the cop-out. Negativity is often conflated with profundity in artistic endeavor, especially by intellectuals and critics. "Being Alive" has been easily dismissed as simple commercial compromise or worse. Those who find the song a sentimental and unworthy finale haven’t paid close enough attention to the terse and fiery lyrics Mr. Sondheim gives Bobby to sing: "Somebody need me too much/Somebody know me too well./Somebody pull up short, and put me through hell,/ and give me support/ for Being Alive." Sondheim does not deny what he has told us for the last two acts, rather he embraces the negativity and ambiguity he has so delicately cultivated and put them to use in a number of raw emotional release.

Company was the show that crystallized Sondheim’s artistic persona, for better and for worse. Sophisticated, intellectual, cold, urban, ironic, unsentimental, pretentious, self-indulgent, highbrow, complicated-the characterization still hangs over Mr. Sondheim’s head and it was Company that put it there. In many ways it is all those things (though I wouldn't use the term self-indulgent) but more than a series of reductive adjectives Company is an experiment in the structure of musical theatre and it’s ability to relate to modern life. Though I sometimes think Company might be my favorite Sondheim score (a mantle place that is constantly shifting) it is not the composers best show by any stretch. The character of Bobby remains too much of a cipher throughout and his relationship to the other characters can range from perplexing to contrived. It is, in many ways, a better cast recording than show. But, whatever its faults, Company remains one of the most important and brilliant shows of the second half of the 20th Century; a “cabaret of urban Neurosis” (to use Ben Brantley’s phrase) than camouflages its bitter taste with a chaser of musical genius and a dessert real emotional vulnerability. As John Lahr wrote in his New Yorker review of the recent revival, “Company expressed not America’s big heart but its numbed one; it brought the musical up to the minute….Sondheim’s revolution was one not just of style but of soul.” I’ll drink to that.