Friday, October 17, 2008
Academics have labeled Stephen Sondheim’s Company a “conceptual musical,” an exploration of the dilemmas and discontents of urban marriage and of unattached bachelorhood.
When it opened in 1970, Broadway audiences were used to plot, plot and character, reflected and stitched together in song. Company, with a book by actor George Furth and words & music by Sondheim, is instead a series of vignettes around the unattached bachelor Robert, living in New York City and facing his 35th birthday.
His friends are five married couples, about his age, who variously admire his freedom, bristle at his unmarried state, or come on to him. Robert is courting, uncertainly, three attractive young women.
The music is catchy, funny, dramatic, and contemporary. The skits are clever and amusing. The outlook is that of the New York sophisticate world making fun of its own attractions to couple-dom while wondering what, exactly, is given up in order to secure the “company” of married life.
This is a talented young cast, and they inhabit the world of Company with great assurance. The piece has aged very well, and in fact it wove some of the conceptual fabric from which other, similar musicals have been made (such as the 1996 work I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, just produced in Austin for the first time).
The magic of the music and the amusements were all the more satisfying, considered that this cast of young, probably mostly unmarried Texas students were teasing bittersweet 1970 New York narcissists. But these about-twenty-somethings, with a pile of talent and with today’s digitally filtered sophistication, still have the stars in their eyes. That fact makes Sondheim’s irony even more powerful.
Texas State University put the show into the Glade Theatre, an apparently little used facility in the forested hollow between Moore Street and Academy Street on the San Marcos campus. Wednesday's opening night was rained out. When I drove down from Austin on Thursday night, the Glade Theatre was hellishly difficult to find. With some delay I got to the Theatre Department, a Myst-like circular building rising out of a pond on the eastern side of campus, only to find the box office closed. Friendly Jennifer, studying in the lobby, reassured me and told me that ticket sales had moved to the Glade Theatre.
On the western side of campus the signs were inadequate or misleading. I stopped several students on campus, and they had no idea where it was, though they were not a hundred yards from the stage. But I found it, and so can you (see the map, below).
And there, a delight was waiting: a stage constructed in the shape of a colorful birthday cake!
The birthday party theme is the basket that contains the evening’s amusements. Robert’s friends are gathering to give him a surprise birthday party, a notion that makes him profoundly uneasy. The scene plays three times: opening the first act, closing it and toward the finale. Robert can’t blow out the candles; he doesn’t know what to wish for; he forgets to wish; and then in the last run through, he hides out until his friends just go away.
Tyler Wallach as Robert provides the continuity, for in most of the scenes he is visiting yet another of the married couples – Sarah and Harry, locked in polite combat over diet, drinking and martial arts; Susan and Peter, surveying New York from their terrace, eventually getting a divorce but remaining together even so; Jenny and David, for a funny and endearing scene of marijuana smoking; Amy and Paul, who have been living together for years and are at the crisis point of actually getting married; and the much-married, cynical and luscious Joanne and her uncomplicated, happy third husband Larry.
Wallach sings well. He handles the comic bits with fine timing and carefully contained double takes and mugging. He sometimes appears a bit uneasy with his hands and often solves that problem just by sticking them in his pockets - - a mannerism shared by none of the other male actors. It might be intended to signal Robert’s perpetual holding back.
His role is not an easy one. He embodies indecision, longing conflicted with the urge to flee, and the theme of the play is his exploration of others. Not until his impressive finale, “Being Alive,” are we given direct insight into his feelings and character.
The men in this piece are mostly interchangeable, in effect multiple versions of Robert. They sing contradicting advice to him and they warn about having to live with the same person all the time, forever. One brief, refreshing exception is the leisure-suited disco dancer Larry (John Boulanger, in white, two paragraphs below), cheerful and faithful to moody Joanne.
Furth and Sondheim were certainly enamored of the ladies, though. Each of the eight women actors of the piece is striking, talented, and has at least one juicy scene. We have no trouble recalling any of their characters. My favorites were Caitlin Hales (left) as the sweetly limited (or in today's world, perhaps ADD-afflicted) airline hostess April, whose number "Barcelona" with Robert is the only piece of music that is organic to the action -- he tries perfunctorily to persuade her not to leave bed in the morning for her flight to Madrid and Barcelona and, to his consternation, convinces her. English Hinojosa (center) as the rarin' to go Marta, lover of New York and its diversity, is a lively, fun loving character, and sets the scene, almost as an angel in the upper story, overlooking Robert's fumblings as she sings "Another Hundred People" ("just got off of the train. . . ."). Macey Mayfield is wonderfully high strung, fast-talking and neurotic, panicked by impending marriage, in "Getting Married Today," and she stirred the audience to spontaneous comment and applause during the number. But prima inter pares for this reviewer was Lindsay Hicks (left), the sauntering, cynical, self-doubting, predatory Joanne. With her sharp comments early in the piece, her extended drinking scene with Robert and Larry, and her heart-squeezing delivery of ("Here's to") "The Ladies Who Lunch," Hicks gives us the authenticity of mid-30s desire, lack of fulfillment and late-summer ripeness.
A hint: take a jacket and maybe a seat cushion to cover the concrete bench; but by all means, go and enjoy this lovely Company!
Company on Wikipedia
YouTube: Stephen Sondheim talks to Sam Mendes of the BBC about the making of Company, at the time of the 2006 revival (4 minutes) ("It was the first commercial piece that was non-linear.")
YouTube: Sondheim coaches singers in (Not) Getting Married Today (7 min.)
YouTube: Carol Burnett sings "Here's to the Ladies who Lunch" (4 min., 35 sec.)
Stephen Sondheim's website page for Company, including links to further articles
Charles Isherwood's review of the 2006 staging of Company, New York Times, March 21, 2006
How to find the Glade Theatre (click the map to see a larger version)