In 1970, when Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company premiered, it was built around a particular gendered cliché: the bachelor who avoids marriage. More than 50 years later, a new production on Broadway has changed the gender: the commitment-phobe male Bobby is now the female Bobbie. While this version of Company attempts to shift the pre-existing material to accommodate this new perspective, all I could hear was dissonance.
Marianne Elliott’s over-articulated production hammers at the same damn nail all night long (turning 35 is a nightmare) with some farcical over-broad interludes. Even with adjustments made to the musical to effectuate this gender-swap, Bobbie’s voice remains absent. And they tried to zhuzh things for her. They changed lyrics, added cellphones, and flipped the gender of other characters as well (with Bobbie strictly heterosexual, her paramours have been turned into men, and one formerly straight couple is now a gay couple). But somehow the ghost of Bobby never left this production for me. Bobbie might be opening her mouth, but Bobby’s sentiments were coming out.
I’ve seen around 5 productions of OG Company. The score is one of my favorites, but the book is wonky, the references are dated, and the plot can drag. Yet, I have seen the rare production where the actor playing Bobby delivers a performance so good it smooths over those bumps and bridges the gaps (Aaron Tveit, if you were wondering). Or maybe you just don’t care. You understand his emotional plight, and the bell bottoms and paisley prints fade away in the face of that. The heart is in those songs anyway. So just let him sing…
Bobby has always been an enigmatic lead, who pushes and pulls himself towards and away from marriage. He is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to “settle down” because it’s something they think he wants but is avoiding in spite of himself. There is also a gendered expectation from society and his friends that Bobby needs to do some growing up. We are meant to knowingly nod at this familiar man-child behavior. And some 50 years on, that pattern still can feel recognizable.
Here, I was perpetually lost on Bobbie’s journey and the songs could not fix that, because they weren’t built for a woman and her feelings about marriage. What did this Bobbie want? She gives lip service to the idea of wanting to get married, but she carries with her a lot more ambivalence. Because when you “flip” the gender, you flip the societal consequences of marriage (and children), which changes—a lot—the meaning of someone’s ambivalence towards marriage, in ways this production could not reckon with. Studies have proven marriage serves men a great deal. However, women get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. (I didn’t make the patriarchy. I just live here. And so does Bobbie.)
So there was something positively oppressive watching a woman be pushed by her friends towards marriage, when it’s unclear why that woman might want or need to be married. This company of friends has always been the chorus in Bobby’s head and the women an amalgamation of his desires (“A Susan sort of Sarah. A Jennyish Joanne”). But this crew nagged at Bobbie with less love and a bitter aftertaste. In return, she did not seem to envy any of them in a meaningful way. The “immaturity” angle, so often thrown at Bobby, does not really appear to be at issue here. Bobbie says she was focusing on her career (which is unnamed and never mentioned again). She’s having hot sex with a flight attendant who is dumber than a box of hair. But she does not seem to have complaints about that either. Bobbie’s reasons for her resistance could be quite complicated, but because this production has shoehorned her experience into someone else’s story, she never gets to voice them. I could not help but cringe at the line, “Let me be used” in “Being Alive” which just carries with it different weight in this context.
Marianne Elliott tries to solve some of the textual problems by contextualizing Bobbie’s struggles in the production elements. But forcing this into the singular conceptual conceit that turning 35 is hounds and haunts her in everything she does flattened the complexity into a dull simplicity.
Elliott opted to make this 35-year-old woman’s birthday and life a nightmare she clamors in and out of. Using grayed-out rooms in boxes edged with light, Bobbie follows the sound of a crying baby. She unlocks doors and passageways and pops up through the looking-glass of her friends’ homes and marriages. Sometimes Bobbie is “in” these scenes as she is living them and sometimes they hold a more jetlagged dream-like quality and she’s not sure how she got there. Her birthday cake is huge. Her birthday cake is small. In almost every scene, the number 35 hovers over Bobbie as something she cannot escape.
Frankly, women have a lot of good reasons NOT to get married in 2021, but this musical ultimately cannot be about that because it was not written to explore that specifically gendered question. This is why the production probably felt compelled to use Bobbie’s “biological clock” as an element of her struggles—hence the sound of crying babies and a dream sequence which includes a Bobbie pregnancy. But there’s nothing else in the show to suggest Bobbie wants kids.
Katrina Lenk as Bobbie did not help matters. She delivered a lot of empty, colorless smiles. Her friends beg Bobbie to “want something” and I just wanted her to BE SOMEONE. Was her whole personality a fabulous red jumpsuit and matching lipstick? I wanted for a moment to just know what she felt and a sarcastic “Being Alive” was unfortunately the most I got. Does she even want company? I was not convinced.
If Bobby can be the narrative gap filler in the wonky book of Company when the actor’s performance is exceptional, then Bobbie needs to be even more so here. Lenk needed to be vividly emotionally present to distill nightmare from dream or clarify desire versus intention. There’s a line where she’s described as a “folksy Doris Day”—but there’s certainly no screwball heroine here either.
That said, there are great comedic performances from Jennifer Simard, Matt Doyle, and Claybourne Elder. Patti LuPone’s Joanne is acerbic, fragile, catty, and knowing and she makes every gesture, expression, and piece of musical punctuation mean so much. Bobbie fades into the walls in her presence.
Elliott treats the ensemble of friends as a farcical, braying crowd hounding Bobbie. If her friends are “the worst” and Bobbie herself seems absolutely oblivious to them and their lives, you start to wonder what any of us are doing here. I did not expect to come away from this production thinking maybe Company is actually just bad.