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.

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