How to describe Steven Sondheim & George Furth’s 1970 musical Company? It belongs to the category of theater that eschews narrative progression in favor of an episodic exploration of issues and themes, and that tries thereby to capture the Zeitgeist of a certain moment in time. In the case of Company, the issue is, superficially at least, marriage: Robert (Jim Stanek), a just turned 35-year-old bachelor, is the only one among his company of friends who has not married and settled down, and this occasions a midlife crisis not only for “Bobby” (as his friends call him), but also for his married pals, who oscillate between envying his single lifestyle, and pitying it. Of course, marriage is not really what this play is about: marriage is, as the closing song “Being Alive” makes clear, merely a synecdoche for entering a fully adult, fully “alive” existence, which necessarily requires compromising, accommodating, sharing, and changing in response to another person’s needs and desires; in other words, maturing out of the narcissism of childhood and into the much less gratifying state of adulthood. For Bobby, this transition is simultaneously desirable and unattainable: he says he wants to find a woman to marry, but (as his three concurrent girlfriends sing in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”) his actions are consistently those of the kind of self-involved jerk who reels women in only to push them away when commitment threatens: “So single and attentive and attractive a man/ Is everything a person could wish,/ But turning off a person is the act of a man/Who likes to pull the hooks out of fish.” The play circles around Bobby’s dilemma from a number of angles, expressing, in lively, catchy tunes, the fear of taking the marriage plunge (“Getting Married Today,” my favorite moment of the show, sung with beautiful comic timing by the excellent Courtney Balan), the mixed feelings of husbands towards wives and towards the way marriage has changed and tamed them (“Sorry-Grateful”), the bewildering, overwhelming, exhilirating possibilities for romance in New York City (“Another Hundred People”), mixed feelings post-one-night-stand (“Barcelona”), the yearning for an impossible “perfect” woman (“Someone is Waiting”), and, of course, the challenges of compromising to maintain a relationship (“Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive”).
I suspect that if I had seen this musical in my twenties, I would not only have found little to identify with in it, but also have been offended by its treatment of the female characters, who are types ranging from the nagging-bossy wife to the stick-up-her-ass-killjoy wife to the crazy-neurotic-needy wife to the on-her-third-husband-and-we-can-all-see-why wife; with the girlfriends falling into categories like airhead stewardess and tough mouthy punk rocker. And I haven’t changed so much that the female characters don’t offend (they do), but I found myself interested in unexpected ways in how this play presents a decidedly masculine perspective on what marriage is and how it shapes and defines a life. In particular, the song “Sorry-Grateful,” resonated with me in ways it never would have resonated with my younger, single self, and I was surprised by how much the show prompted me to reflect on what being alive (in the musical’s terminology) is really about.
That said – and to dwell, sideways-like, on the treatment of women in the play a bit longer – there’s a missed opportunity in the Public’s production, which sets the period of this piece as “Now” and updates the material in a manner akin to refinishing your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them. Alas, no number of Ikea carpets or cell phones on stage can obscure the material’s 70s “feel,” which is nowhere more apparent than in the “Feminine Mystique” anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch.” As much as I liked many of the design elements (in particular, Larry Shea’s projection design, which gives visual presence and punch to the libretto’s adoration of New York City), I found myself wishing that director Ted Pappas had chosen to stage this musical as a period piece instead of generically shifting it into the twenty-first century. Because although the fears and neuroses and anxieties about marriage and commitment that beset “Bobby-bubby” may be timeless (and I don’t know if they are), this musical really isn’t: its era – marked by, among many other things, the height of second-wave feminism, the early years of birth control and the sexual revolution for both men and women, Stonewall, and women’s first opportunities for admission to Ivy-league institutions and professional careers, which gave them the choice not to settle for charming players like Bobby – makes the story make sense, at least from a historical-sociological perspective, and allows us to see why Furth and Sondheim portray women as Freud did, as mysterious “dark continents” (or – pretty much the equivalent – as cartoonish stereotypes). Looked at from that perspective, Company is not just about marriage, or even about marriage as synecdoche for personal maturation; it’s about finding a mate in an era when rules and expectations have suddenly changed, for men as well as women, and about negotiating in those uncharted waters. But we have to be able to imagine those waters as still-uncharted in order to gain that perspective; by setting the play in the present day, the production unduly narrows its scope and keeps us from experiencing how vividly Sondheim and Furth captured the sexual-revolution Geist of that Zeit.