The Company We Keep

Geva’s production of Companydirected by Mark Cuddy, is about to head into the theatre for technical rehearsals, and since I’m not on the creative team for the production, I’ve only heard snippets of music from the rehearsal room. But what I’ve heard has me incredibly intrigued! As I look forward to seeing the production onstage, I’m also thinking back to the history of this piece, and its relevance today.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Company, collaborating with George Furth who wrote the book, and it first appeared on Broadway in 1970. It was one of the first “concept musicals” in American musical theatre, a collage of scenes and songs organized around exploring an idea – in this case, marriage and commitment. The legendary director Harold Prince directed that first production, and together, the three men agreed on what Sondheim called a “secret metaphor” for the production.

The show compared the 1970 definition of marriage with the island of Manhattan, which Sondheim called “the handiest local for the inhumanity of contemporary living and the difficulties in making relationships.” Scenic designer Boris Aronson’s set (which won a Tony Award in 1971) conveyed the attitude of Manhattanites – emotionally detached, efficient, and gleaming. Throughout the performance, slides were projected onto the set, highlighting the emotions in the scenes or suggesting specific locations. With over 600 different images projected onto the set, most audience members were probably unaware of the nuanced changes throughout the play. However, moments like the one below, in a nightclub, surely made an impression.

Critics immediately picked up on the “secret” metaphor that Sondheim referred to, the comparison of marriage to the island of Manhattan. One critic expanded on the notion: “Company makes Manhattan a metaphor for marriage. Manhattan is an island of anguish and delight; so is marriage. Manhattan is an incessant roar of competitive egos; marriage is a subdued echo of the same. Manhattan is a meeting of strangers; marriage is a mating of strangers. Manhattan is a war of nerves; marriage is a ferocious pillow-fight battle of the sexes. The links do not stop there. The tempo of Manhattan is a kind of running fever; modern marriage runs a fever and the partners are always taking its temperature. It simply is not the placid old heaven-ordained, till-death-do-us-part, for-better-or-for-worse institution it used to be.”

Company‘s opening song was written AFTER Sondheim saw Aronson’s design for the set, rather than the song inspiring the design, as future productions would work. This first set allowed the married couples to each have their own spaces up above Bobby, and to comment on his contemplation of marriage, all the while remaining oblivious to each other.

There have been numerous revivals, including a 1995 revival at the Roundabout Theatre and another the next year in London at the Donmar Warehouse, which was notable for its casting of Adrian Lester, the first black actor cast as Bobby in a major production of the show.

The most recent Broadway revival, however, was in 2006, directed and choreographed by John Doyle. Doyle’s approach to Company was similar to his 2005 approach to another Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In both productions, Doyle employed the actors themselves as the orchestra – the actors sing and play instruments throughout the performance, which gives them all a kind of voyeur status. The set for the 2006 revival, designed by David Gallo, is almost the exact opposite of the 1970 debut – it feels intimate and loft-like. We feel like we are inside an apartment, and maybe even Bobby’s thoughts, rather than outside. (Should you be interested in more about this, the production was filmed for PBS and is available for instant streaming on Netflix.)

So…what will Geva’s production look like? Our set, designed by G.W. Mercier, also takes inspiration from Manhattan, but not in such a direct way. It also builds on the notion of compartmentalization and isolation – if only we can keep different parts of our lives boxed up, we can keep ourselves separate from others and attempt to disprove the notion that we need people to share in our lives. In this illustration here, you can see both of these inspirations at play – the boxes, when taken together, suggest the skyline of New York City.

For more information on the original production of Company, I recommend the source of this post’s information on the production, Joanne Gordon’s book Art Isn’t Easy: The Theatre of Stephen Sondheim

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