Few BuzzFeed articles have appeared as frequently on my Facebook News Feed as “22 Signs You Were Raised by Stephen Sondheim,” a piece that has been making the rounds of the cyber-world as of two weeks ago. This isn’t an exactly shocking fact for someone whose Facebook friends are mostly “theater people,” among whom Sondheim is a universally known name. Perhaps this is because, as Anika Chapin, an MFA dramaturgy candidate at Columbia and self-proclaimed “huge Sondheim nerd,” says, “Sondheim’s shows are so complex” that “you can literally spend an entire lifetime analyzing them.”
The caliber of Sondheim’s productions is exemplified by his 1970 spectacle Company, which, with lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth, earned 14 Tony nominations (an unprecedented number at the time) and won six. The show follows 35-year-old Bobby in his skepticism about romantic commitment and marriage as he interacts with several married friends in New York on his birthday. Recently, the news broke that Sondheim and John Tiffany, director of the Tony-winning musical Once, will be re-adapting Company with Bobby as an openly gay man. Consequently, all three of Bobby’s romantic interests, played by women since the musical’s 1970 debut, will be redeveloped as men.
When asked to describe Company in a few brief sentences, Chapin called it a story about “a man who finally realizes the value of connecting in a relationship.” Margo Jefferson, a professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts, called it a story about “dating, mating, couples, and social rituals” as parts of “wild, cynical, sophisticated New York life in the ’70s.” Roger Oliver, professor of liberal arts and theater history at the Juilliard School, outlined the show as “a musical that presents New York in the ’70s through the eyes of a 35-year-old bachelor and his relationship with five married couples.”
All three descriptions, given in the midst of a major development in the musical’s context, possess one curious similarity: They describe general themes of New York social interaction without specific reference to Bobby’s sexual orientation.
This raises the question: If Bobby’s sexual orientation is not among the integral, defining characteristicsof Company, what is the significance of changing it now?
Jefferson asserts that the timing of the development “couldn’t be more appropriate,” seeing as “we,” the theatrical community, “have long passed the issue of incumbent theatrics,” where whispered questions about whether or not a character is “in the closet” are associated with every major production. Oliver says that “ultimately, it is a show about marriage,” and that, due to the recent political advancements made with respect to same-sex unions, “that may be the reason why it is being thought about in those terms.”
When speaking to the New York Times in October, Sondheim commented on the potential political implications that might be associated with the change in Bobby’s sexual orientation. “We don’t deal with gay marriage as such,” he says, claiming that this new version of Company seeks to explore its “subject matter in a fresh way.”
However, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been speculation about Bobby’s sexual orientation in the past. In fact, Oliver points out that “there were people from the beginning who wondered if, in fact, Bobby was gay,” saying that these speculators often wondered “if that was the reason why he had trouble committing to getting married.” These people, he said, had a running debate with those who rejected questions of Bobby’s sexual orientation in the musical’s traditional interpretation.
Both Sondheim and Furth have publicly rejected claims that the “original” Bobby was afraid of commitment because of his own uncertainty about his sexual orientation. How, then, can the current reinterpretation of the character be reconciled with this previous position?
Speculation surrounding Bobby’s sexual orientation has been around since the musical’s advent.
However, Chapin does not see this long-running discourse as a reason for the character’s revival as an out gay man. Rather, as her initial description of it may have indicated, she views Company as a piece whose message transcends speculation about sexual orientation. By reinterpreting the character now, Sondheim and Tiffany allow Bobby’s “choosing not to commit” to be about “internal reasons rather than external reasons.” Chapin poses an interesting point about the timeliness of this reinvention. Speculation about Bobby’s sexual orientation may have dulled or undermined the intricacies of his character and relationships.
The social context of contemporary times seems generally welcoming for this particular revival. However, can the same be said for avid Company or Sondheim fans?
Jefferson says that this is a difficult question to assess, since the most dedicated Sondheim fans generally “fall into die-hard purists (‘let’s keep everything’) or ‘let’s keep revivifying [and] reviving this genius.” However, she claims that there’s no question that, “like any artist, his work can bear every kind of interpretation.” Jefferson goes on to suggest that skeptics may be pacified by the fact that “Sondheim is very much involved” in this development.
Chapin believes that this reinterpretation “is going to be much more than a gimmick” to sell tickets and garner reviews. The legitimacy of the show’s reinterpretation will resonate with devoted fans, she says, adding an “interesting layer” of consideration for those who have dedicated much of their lives to analyzing the complexities of Sondheim’s musicals.
Oliver predicts that the famed composer’s “fans will be fascinated” by the change. “Obviously,” he says, “a lot of Sondheim’s fans are, in fact, gay, so I think that they would be particularly interested to see how he handles it.” But, like Chapin, he believes that the musical will transcend questions of sexual orientation. “I think even the nongay fans would be interested.”
Does a development as significant as a change in sexual orientation need to be introduced in a show’s revival in order to spark audience interest? Jefferson does not believe so, pointing to “the history of successful musical theater revivals that have not wildly altered the perspective” of their originals.
She singles out “the British Oklahoma!” and “Guys and Dolls orchestrated with a smaller orchestra” as examples of this. It is, then, altogether possible for Company, radical change in characterization aside, to see success—so long as it retains the show’s essential components. “A good show with a first-rate score can always be successfully revived under a smart director, good performances, and terrific orchestration,” Jefferson says. The future will reveal whether Tiffany and Sondheim’s Company, still in its workshop phase, follows the examples set by Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma!.
Oliver, too, stresses the importance of the revival’s execution in determining where it will stand relative to the original. “Stephen Sondheim is incredibly smart,” he says, “and I can’t believe that he would do anything that wouldn’t work and that wouldn’t be really interesting.”
Oliver corroborates Jefferson’s point about the importance of a capable director at the helm of such a project. “I think John Tiffany is an absolutely terrific director. Everything of his that I’ve seen has been incredibly smart and incredibly good.” Chapin says that the revival’s success will depend “on how successful” it is in “realizing the vision they [its developers] have for it.” The collaboration between Sondheim and Tiffany, then, seems promising.
Despite his total involvement in reinterpreting the characters of Bobby and his girlfriends, Sondheim has expressed reservations about making any major changes to the musical’s book and score. He has revealed to the New York Times that “as little as possible” will be changed in the original lyrics and dialogue, seeing as how Furth “isn’t around” to assist with the redevelopment.
The relationship of this revival to the original show has also been a cause for speculation. Jefferson says that because the number of people who saw the original spectacle live is “dwindling,” the “main comparison will be between any version in which Bobby was nominally to thoroughly straight and this version.” Jefferson also adds that “this version will have to stand on its own,” largely due to the fact that “it will bring in a new audience of people who maybe only know Bobby from CDs” prior to seeing the show.
Oliver and Jefferson share the idea that this production may bring in a new wave of spectators who, as Oliver puts it, “have never seen the musical before.” However, Oliver believes that this production “will be a variant of the original. It’s not going to be the same Company. It will be a different Company, obviously. A Company for our times.”
Contemporary viewers’ experience of Company will certainly feature the musical’s most direct and extensive addressing of homosexuality since its advent. However, it will not be the first time the subject is touched upon, however briefly.
There is one scene, featured in a recent New York Philharmonic concert version of the show, in which Bobby and one of the husbands “have a conversation about whether either of them has ever been with a man. And they both, in fact, say that they have.” Oliver, who followed along with the script as he watched this performance, says that this conversation is not included in the original dialogue. This, he says, is an example of recent attempts “to at least add a gay element” to the story. “In terms of its relationship to gayness, the show definitely has been evolving.”
It’s probably safe to say that the musical has taken its cues from the social context in which it has been performed. As gay marriage has become an increasingly accepted feature in contemporary culture, the question of Bobby’s commitment issues has allowed the audience to experience Company’s protagonist not as a heterosexual, closeted, or out gay man, but simply as a man dealing with his reservations about commitment