Phone rings, door chimes, out comes Company.
It looks like Stephen Sondheim is reworking his classic musical Company and — despite what he’s said in the past — he’s making it a whole lot gayer. Patrick Healy of The New York Times broke the news that The Roundabout Theater Company is currently hosting readings of a revised version of Company, which Sondheim has been working on with director John Tiffany.
Healy reports that Tiffany, whose magnificent Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie highlights the gay overtones in the Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece, has recast Company’s central character as a gay man with a lot of boyfriends but no real prospects for settling down.
“It’s still a musical about commitment, but marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970,” Sondheim told Healy. “We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way.”
Many of the roles traditionally played by female actors have been recast with men. For example, the character of Joanne, who gets to sing the show-stopping “Ladies Who Lunch,” has been played by the likes of Elaine Stritch and Patti Lupone in the past. Here, Alan Cumming fills the role. Other actors participating in the reading include Michael Urie, Bobby Steggert and Daniel Evans.
Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, first produced in 1970, is considered by some to be the first non-linear concept musical to be produced commercially. It tells the story of Bobby, a bachelor who, on the eve of his 35th birthday, examines his relationships with the various couples in his life.
“The show takes place not over a period of time,” Sondheim wrote in his book Finishing the Hat. “But in an instant in Robert’s mind, perhaps on a psychiatrist’s couch, perhaps at the moment when he comes into his apartment on his thirty-fifth birthday.”
The ambiguity surrounding Bobby’s place in the world has naturally begged questions about his sexuality over the years. Why isn’t he married? Why does he reject the advances of Joanne, a boozy older woman to whom he seems especially connected? Why does he get so uncomfortable when Peter, a pal in the middle of a divorce from his wife, brings up past gay encounters?
Sondheim and Furth repeatedly shot down suggestions that Bobby was gay, but that didn’t stop critics, audiences and artists from wondering. Some concluded that Bobby is a reflection his creators, both of whom were gay but publicly closeted when they wrote Company. In a 2011 essay for Capital New York, James Jorden reduced Sondheim and Furth to products of their era, saying:
The problem is that Robert is a product of that unenlightened 1970 mindset, a fictional example of that apocryphal type of “guy who is cool enough to sleep with guys occasionally but really, fundamentally, is normal.”… I think Sondheim and Furth both bought into that “Robert” fiction because they didn’t see themselves as ‘fags.’ They were (perhaps not consciously) writing a character who was a version of themselves: a smart, well-connected, unpartnered man about town. So they put themselves onstage, the thirty-something-year-old casual buddy (to men) and asexual pal (to women) that Robert ends up being in the show… But what they left out was the essential trait of sexual orientation. That’s why Robert feels so incomplete and empty onstage.
Whatever reasons Sondheim has for changing his mind about Bobby, we couldn’t be more thrilled. If all goes well at the reading this Friday, Roundabout could produce gay Company in the next few seasons. But as far as we’re concerned, if Alan Cumming is going to be belting and throwing martinis in audience members’ faces, our tickets are as good as purchased.