Wait for Me, I’ll Hurry: Reflections on “Company”
Late in February, surrounded by a few dozen people who, in a throng, hummed, “Happy birthday, Robert!” — their delivery carefully intoned, comically monotonous — I felt a little loved. Momentarily. Any hint of resentment at the people who weren’t there, at people who would inevitably forget about my birthday, the connections that had been lost or severed or dissolved, was gone. Their scripts in hand — on paper or on a screen — we play acted Company, the “musical comedy” written by George Furth with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, first staged in 1970. As if preparing to hurdle down an emotional slope, the ending of the first song of the musical repeats over and over again, “And that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?” The question isn’t answered so much as it is implied by the space. A little bit of love and validation in a chaotic world, a mess of a city where you may ask, “Will I see you again?” Its questions are of existential and personal unease, and there is comfort and distress to be found in the answers — transient, though they may be.
I’ve loved Company since at least 2012, back when the recording of John Doyle’s 2006 revival with Raúl Esparza was available to stream on Netflix, and I watched at an age where I was too young to understand the complexity of the play’s anxieties and ambivalences. For the better part of those six years, I’ve detailed my desire to adapt it as a film. Each year passes and that project grows at a glacial pace. But I return to that same production ceaselessly and listen to its cast album nonstop.
One needn’t live in New York to grasp at birthday boy Bobby’s sense of alienation and unsureness, but it helps. The handsome, but not too handsome, 35 year old commitment-phobic lead’s sense of displacement is amplified if you exist, nominally, in the same space as he. Marta’s simultaneously human and omnipotent observation in “Another Hundred People” — a song whose strains of piano spiral endlessly — that New York is a city of strangers grows ever more complex in the time since the play was written: at once buoyed by assimilating into a mass blob of anonymity with generic, sub middle class aspirations and work ethic, and yet encouraged (at least in the digital sphere) to perpetuate a myth of individuality. You can hear the song echoing through the subway tunnels or trawling down the streets of the Village late at night. But it’s most like New York without the reference to the park in the East 50s or the Seagram Building. It’s most like New York when it understand space and emotion. This place becomes a space of paradox for human identity. Bobby is increasingly characterized as a stranger to himself, and, as Sondheim and Furth have suggested, in arrested development.
The wives want to know what’s keeping him from a committed relationship, the husbands tell him it’s pretty overrated, the girlfriends are juggling their desire for him with their desire to be autonomous people in their own life, and Bobby, Robert, darling, is stuck.
I feel a little stuck.
I planned my wedding, and my proposal, when I was in second grade, and the journey from prudishness to where I am now is a horseshoe. Only validated briefly if someone sleeps with me on the first date, only feeling wanted if someone makes a move quickly, and yet, after a short time, prone to losing interest and doubt my own inexplicable and ingrained obsession with something akin to domesticity.
The relationships in Company are always in flux — a melange of starts and stops, doubts and assurance, reaffirmations, too, all without traditional structure. All laid bare. Stephen Sondheim’s legacy won’t merely be his skill at songs of interiority, but, as Michael Schulman asserts, songs of ambivalence. You can feel two different things at the same time, and they can coexist, and happy has nothing to do with it. Is that the lesson of Company?
The trouble with Bobby is that he feels almost nothing beyond some ingratiate socialized reflex — to date, to marry, to get away, to settle, to look for more. Everyone is a little bit of a Bobby, maybe. The only stability he has is watching the instability of the ghosts of his friends, an uncomfortable mirror he ignores. Nothing is scarier than being alone. He asks again and again, “Will I see you again?”
There is a concerted effort to be made regarding sustaining friendships in New York. The opening of the original cast album features a busy signal. There is the joke that adulthood in New York is emailing or texting, “It’s been ages, we should get drinks soon!” until one of you dies. Everyone is busy, with their own lives and issues. Saying goodbye, even after dinner, is more fraught than it would be in Connecticut or Provincetown, two places I’ve previously resided. An invitation to dinner means all the more. The stakes are embedded in meeting or a hang out or a dinner or a date in a city of several million, compressed onto an island. Paranoia and loneliness are compounded, where “What Would We Do Without You?” may be delivered as sincere, but still retains a sneaking suspicion of inauthenticity and disingenuousness. Company is as self-lacerating as it is earnest. It is happy to confuse the two.
The swirl of life never stopping, hardly taking a moment to take a breath, makes isolation more expensive. A space so big and yet so small that there’s enough room to cycle through neurosis and self-loathing and yet feel suffocated by your own thoughts and loneliness, a routine where you can successfully or unsuccessfully convince yourself otherwise. Perhaps wrongfully, one may be found holding an expectation that the people you love, or who you could love, will just be there waiting. It’s hard not to think that. I’m still too young to think this, to feel the resounding emotions of the play, or of life generation, so potently. A date can register as nothing to me or as walking on the precipice between dying alone and finding someone to be with. If the chance is there, and deeply felt, there’s the urge to reach out trying to hold onto something elusive and abstract, saying, “Wait for me, I’m ready now, I’ll find you if I can.” Saying this to a nonexistent ideal, an amalgamation of feelings, thirst traps, glances, with a little soul, too. To settle with the next person you see on the street, whimpering, ”Marry me a little, love me just enough.”
But, as Amy says, You have to marry somebody, not just somebody. My body is othered, though, sort of. Nonwhite, queer, Asian.
There is little reason to try to articulate what I want than what Bobby already articulates, contradictorily and needily, in “Being Alive”. Esparza’s delivery of “mock me with praise” contains such incendiary fury, the pleas are felt into his bones. But to be confronted by those needs or wants and allow them to coalesce with the needs and wants of another person, is that the answer to the question Company asks? I’ll listen to it again, and again, and may never find the answer, and that’s fine.
If I got no sleep last night, I woke up at 6, dressed myself, thought too neurotically about the date I was to go on later in the evening — a month after my birthday party where i felt a little loved — then I felt comfort and melancholy in singing, “Wait for me, I’ll hurry.” I sang it to an imaginary Him.