Stephen Sondheim’s Company With The New York Philharmonic
- B+ Community Grade
Composer Stephen Sondheim, writer George Furth, and producer Harold Prince turned their Broadway musical Company into a Tony-winning sensation in 1970, and in the decades since, people have talked periodically about turning the show into a movie. But Company’s elliptical structure—based on 11 short Furth playlets—and its deep roots in the preoccupations of late-’60s New York society have usually made it seem too much of a product of its time and place to translate well to the screen. Besides, Company already has been documented, multiple times: in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Company: Original Cast Album, about the recording of the original cast album; in a BBC telecast of Sam Mendes’ mid-’90s London revival; in PBS’ Great Performances broadcast (and subsequent DVD) of director John Doyle’s Tony-winning 2006 revival, in which the actors also play the instruments; and in a simulcast-to-theaters high-definition recording of a limited 2011 engagement, featuring The New York Philharmonic and a celebrity cast. The latter is now available on Blu-ray, and it reveals anew the greatness of Company, and why the show will likely continue to survive only onstage, as a period piece.
The Philharmonic version—directed by Lonny Price—stars Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, a single, middle-aged New Yorker whose married friends are urging him to find a woman and settle down. Among those friends: Craig Bierko as a blustery lothario who’s happily divorcing his wife; Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton as a couple trying to stay healthy while living vicariously through Bobby’s indulgence; Jon Cryer as a quietly mopey guy whose expectations for his marriage have diminished considerably; Katie Finneran as a former girlfriend of Bobby anxious about her upcoming wedding; and Patti LuPone as a drunken older cynic who finds all of these youngsters and their preoccupations ridiculous. Most of these people seem to want Bobby to get hitched so that he’ll be as miserable as they are. Meanwhile, Bobby dallies with multiple girlfriends, including Anika Noni Rose as a woman turned on by the infinite varieties of urban living, and Christina Hendricks as a ditzy but sweet-natured flight attendant. The character types are of their era, in that they’re people pondering what “liberation” means in the context of a social order that’s changing rapidly.
Company is also of its era in that it contains the same experimental spirit that rock ’n’ roll was starting to sport circa 1970. Sondheim has never been a rock fan—and Company’s score is hardly rock-oriented—but the show’s form is more of a “concept album” than a narrative-driven musical. Sondheim’s songs describe the characters’ inner lives instead of propelling a plot, taking Furth’s comic portrayal of restless Manhattanites and placing it in musical contexts that range from vaudeville romps to contemporary pop, all laced with direct, sometimes painfully open sentiment. Whether describing the necessary pains of romance in “Being Alive” or mocking the quirks of modern marriage in “The Little Things You Do Together,” Sondheim channeled a lot of the angst that was in the air at the end of the ’60s into a set of songs that’s at once broadly theatrical and true. The trade-off for that is that Company has more of an internal arc than an obvious external one, as Bobby comes to realize that having lots of friends does not compensate for coming home to an empty apartment. The sketches in Company are frequently very funny, and the songs are some of Sondheim’s catchiest, but the musical has a protagonist that’s more quizzical than driven, which can make Company feel like a collection of loosely connected moments, not a show.
This production doesn’t solve that problem; if anything, it lags well behind Doyle’s version, which brought some unity to Company with its cast-as-orchestra concept. Plus, Price’s curtailed preparation for the Philharmonic staging—which required him to rehearse with the cast separately, sometimes on the sets of their TV shows rather than in the theater—means that the seams frequently show with this Company. The music sounds grand, but the audio mix is wobbly at times, the pacing is fitful, the blocking isn’t crisp, and some of the songs are too slow. (Although it’d be hard for anyone to sing the patter-iffic “Getting Married Today” as fast as it’s meant to be, even with months to work on it instead of the short time that Finneran had.) And as always, after an eventful getting-to-know-everyone first act, Company’s second act feels too abbreviated, with too much focus on one sexual encounter between Bobby and the stewardess, April.
But Hendricks is hilarious and sexy as April, as is Finneran as a neurotic bride-to-be; and Plimpton and Colbert have great chemistry as a grinning-through-their-hostility couple. In fact, there are many bright spots in the cast of this Company, which ultimately helps make Sondheim and Furth’s sparse second act feel more lived-in. Price was wise enough to embrace what Company actually is, rather than trying too hard to refashion it into something “modern” or “cinematic.” Company’s a revue, essentially: a showcase for strong actors and singers who know how to hold an audience rapt for a few minutes. That’s what Cryer does in his one big scene, where he smokes pot with his wife and then shifts from goofy to melancholy when he tells Bobby that she’s not as hip as she pretends to be; and that’s definitely what LuPone does when she belts the showstopper “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and reveals with each line her character’s hidden vulnerability. The whole idea behind Price’s Company was to sell the material by bringing in big names to perform it; and those famous people live up to their billing, commanding the stage, side by side by side.
Key features: None.