Happy Birthday, Bobbie!

Yes, Thank You for Remembering: Marianne Elliott and Rosalie Craig’s “Company” as Memory Musical

Elliott’s West End production of the Sondheim musical figured out how to make it human

Company has seemingly always been, since its first production in 1970 on Broadway, about a more abstract idea of romance, relationships, sex, singledom, marriage, and, certainly, its title. It has been, hitherto, proud of that, proud of its experimentation and quasi-defiance in the face of commercial theatre, happy to be about those ideas in theory, content for Bobby — the 35 year old bachelor and serial dater at the center of a group of marrieds, about to be married, soon to be not marrieds — be cipher-ish, less a character and more a palate for an audience, someone like me (a queer, never been in a relationship bitter New Yorker) or someone for people who have been married or have been in serious relationships and have had doubts or are happy or mixed, to latch onto. We don’t know what job Bobby has, or even much what he likes or doesn’t like; rather, it’s filtered through an imagined tug of war between what we’re told about Bobby and the little Bobby tells us, as far as what “defines” him. There is, not to discredit George Furth’s book (and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics), an everyman quality to Bobby, which puts the onus on the performer to give him a sense of life and, should one be particularly ambitious (such as Raúl Esparza in John Doyle’s 2006 Broadway production), an intimation of interiority, just short of embrace. (Or, if you’re boneheaded and don’t even bother trying to unpack and interrogate the character, look no further than Neil Patrick Harris’ shallow, boneheaded caricature of Bobby in the 2011 New York Philharmonic concert production.) But what happens when you reconfigure the musical comedy to throw caution to the winds and own up to feeling the emotions and animating the ideas Company purports to be about?

The “it” of “That’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?” from the title song has, like the show, been comfortable to remain ambiguous, open to interpretation, while Sondheim’s lyrics facetiously suggest that the “it” is “company”, which in turn becomes another red herring itself. “What does ‘company’ even mean, and to whom?” you’re supposed to ask. Not unlike its lead character, the “it” could be ambivalent, unruly, and devoid of fidelity to anyone or thing or reading in particular. But Marianne Elliott, and her producing partner Chris Harper, and the cast of her West End production of Company have finally given the “it” meaning, a sense of gravity. She’s figured out what “it” can be, and how “it” can be specific and thrilling.

“How many times do you get to be 35? Eleven?”

It’s not a matter of the mere gender bending of the lead, now Bobbie (Rosalie Craig), her dress as florid as her hair fiery, that matters here, the key to Elliott’s re-envisioning of Company is turning it into a “memory musical”. While in previous versions, the nonlinear play let its episodes float in the air, — with Bobby its primary anchor, and the scenes vaguely supposed to be the interiority itself — Elliott opens with an exhausted, annoyed Bobbie at home, not only confronted by the well-meaning ghosts of her friends, but replaying the past. Here, Bobbie starts and stops mid scene, the lighting by Neil Austin switching to blue as if to manually pause the scene. When “The Little Things You Do Together” plays, Joanne (Patti LuPone, who is fine) and the other couples literally intrude into her memory, like the voice of someone moralizing interrupting the scene in your head. When the beaus Bobbie is seeing appear for “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (Andy, nee Amy; Theo, nee Kathy; and PJ, nee Marta, rather brilliantly rearranged as a kind of barbershop triplet of a sex idiot, fuckboi, and douchebag in your writing MFA), they are less the reality of who those men are and rather asserted as the worst fears about herself: Theo, nee Kathy, cruelly calls her a “feminist” in air quotes, doubling down on her self-doubt and unsureness about marriage within the context of her own convictions. And further down an unending mirror of self-criticism amplified by the inappropriate or intrusive questions of others, “Another Hundred People” becomes a memory of a memory, an idea of someone else’s imagination, no longer isolation. If it were just a gender reversal, the question of Company (produced as a reply to the sexual revolution in America in the ‘70s), which was “why are you, a man who is 35, not married?” would turn into “why are you, a woman who is 35, not married?”, which sounds more like a question asked in the late 1990s. It’s too broad a question, and too dated in a post-Tinder/Grindr/Sex and the City western world. The question would wobble and arguably become as sexist as it always was. No, it’s not just the gender swapping (other couples are swapped in roles too), it’s the tactile sense that this is someone’s life we’re watching. It has to be about somebody, not just some body.

Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie feels like somebody. While “Marry Me a Little” can be a nice, emotional “I want” plea, Craig transforms it into a conversation she’s having with nobody, alone. While she can puncture the artifice of her memories by pausing, by stepping outside the set, she’s left by herself on stage, an expansive space at the John Gielgud Theatre, the negative area and the blue light threatening to swallow her up. Each line is not so much a lyric but an integral part of her character, a tool for the thing she’s constantly debating herself about, a bargaining chip to use on someone who’s not there and for whom she is, as the song goes, ready. The audience almost becomes a proxy for who she could be talking to, a suitable stand in for her to jump back and forth, hedge her bets. Each line is sung differently but cohesively. And at the end, the uneasiness of “I’m ready now”, not belted but instead delivered with Sondheim’s trademark ambivalence, even we don’t know if she is; but we do know what she feels, and palpably so. Her body language suggest someone who is both confident and performing the role of a woman who is expected to be confident and to know what they want. Her subtle line readings strategically show her emotional hand, a complex jumble of contradictions, sifting through what she wants versus what other people tell her she wants or should not want. At times, when she looks to the audience, there’s an expression of regret, like she’s divulged something regrettable and she wishes to rewrite her past. And the exceptional thing about Elliott’s Company is that it legitimately feels like Bobbie’s got one.

Part of Elliott’s framing of Company (with some of the book and lyrics rewritten for the new angle, but remains very faithful to the original text, and the changes go down almost effortlessly) as a kind of memory musical has ushered in a keener understanding of space; scenes and sets (by designer Bunnie Christie) and people bump into each other, slide across, bleed into one another via doors in an endlessly connected hallway as if by a functioning train on the MTA, nearly fight over space on the stage and in Bobbie’s sense of temporality. Sets are bordered by neon lighting, and other neons in chilling blue and blistering red set the scene, almost threateningly, like an ultra-modern retort to Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”. The slick spaces of the characters’ apartments, white and angular and as severe as Bobbie thinks other people thinks she is, threaten to become a kind of bourgeois prison, either sterile or only safe enough to the degree that the people in it can make it safe for one another. And what she frequently sees are spaces in flux, the romantic dynamics seldom static enough to trust; people like Peter and Susan can seem on the cusp of disaster in marriage one moment, and elated in divorce with each other the next.

But this manic shift between safety and danger is best represented by the reimagined “Not Getting Married Today”, where Paul and Jaime (nee Amy) test the boundaries of the space in their kitchen and the space in their relationship to their limit. Jaime as neurotic Jewish gay person seems to contour the manic episode, the excoriating panic attack with an implied context, straddling between sending up that stereotype and giving it depth. “I never saw one good marriage,” Jaime says shrinking violet-like, the statement tinged with a sense of inherited gay self-loathing. With Jonathan Bailey as Jaime, he threatens to burst in the space, and all the more excruciatingly real, Bobbie sees what that scene represents in her own life: queer people can get married, but it comes with the baggage of not only the people involved but the implication of living up to a mythologized American Dream, accessible to a fairly select group of people. But that Jaime and Paul’s scene, and her subsequent proposition to the former (which gives “Marry me, and everybody’ll leave us alone” a staggeringly political and personal precision, turning the line into an unexpected wallop) can position itself as a political or ideological anxiety in Bobbie’s mind does not undermine the pure visceral quality of the proceedings. And Jaime and Bobbie’s easy intimacy with one another, a new element and shown in the form of warm hugs, knowing glances, and clever code switching, implies that both Bobbie and Jaime are flesh and blood, capable of folly and flaw and fear.

In this headspace where it becomes about Bobbie self-actualizing for herself and not just the audience (her depth is there, she just has to recognize it), her memories and imagination can betray her. A scene on the bench with Theo reveals her hesitance to be vulnerable, her resentment, her envy, qualities which she struggles to reconcile with or understand what she feels and why. The specter of “because (straight) women are told to [feel this pressure]” lingers in the air of this play like fog. Giant silver balloons proclaiming her age, 35, dwarf her.

That Bobbie must sing her songs alone on stage makes the fear she feels all the more recognizable, all the more stunning. With nothing else but emptiness behind her, what’s worse: trapped in marriage or being alone? What about yourself and your ideals, or notions of what’s expected of you, are you willing to sacrifice? But Craig and Elliott understand acutely that that’s not the question that should be asked, and the answer wouldn’t be clear cut and satisfying anyways.

For perhaps the first time, Bobbie feels real, no longer just an abstraction of ideas and feelings in a concept play, but now a character, a person embodying those ideas, emotions, and anxieties in phantasmagoric existential crisis. Company has retained some of its more experimental, deconstructionist vibes intact (playfully in sly looks, transgressed borders, and temporal fun), again thanks to Elliott’s direction. Now in maybe it’s most quintessential iteration, Company has become even more confrontational, more emotional, more joyful and angry and melancholy, more thrillingly alive. Elliott has essentially argued that, as memory musical, memory is, in a Lockesian way, crucial to understanding Bobbie, and for Bobbie to understand herself. This version of Company lands positing itself as a fever dream, as a space where Bobbie has to figure out if she wants to be, for her emotional self, unshackled from what everyone else says or thinks; now she can be vulnerable, and raw and tender. Now she has to figure out if she wants to be somebody or just some body. That’s what it’s really about.

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc

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