The boy who lives upstairs

Yeah, the Sondheim tinkering with Company to make Bobby gay thing.  You knew I had to pipe up about that one.

Stephen Sondheim is 83.  Octogenarians do whatever the hell they want, and that’s fine, because, we figure, they’ve been around so long they’ve earned the right to do things – even crazy shit – without being harshly criticized.  And it’s only a reading.  Not open to the public.  The director, John Tiffany, has been widely-praised for Once and The Glass Menagerie; one certainly can’t blame Sondheim for wanting to work with him.

But let’s look at this.  Let’s look at what Company actually is.  Let’s look at the mass hysteria – the deluded throngs who’ve insisted that Company is something other than what it is.  And then maybe a little speculation on what alterations would be necessary to turn a musical about a heterosexual into a musical about a homosexual.

The character actor George Furth wrote a set of short plays about married couples and showed them to producer-director Harold Prince. He brought in Sondheim, who, at that point, was no critic’s darling. They came up with the idea of connecting the plays by inventing Bobby, one of those stereotypical bachelors of the time, who could observe the marriages and, perhaps, be influenced by them. What they wrought in 1970 was a huge hit, and answered a question on the mind of many: What is it with all these men who have so many relationships with women but can’t pick one and settle down?

For a time, some believed that Bobby was Sondheim’s self-portrait.  This supposition seems pretty humorous now, of course. Sondheim and Furth, both gay men, didn’t have the experience of bedding many women that they depict. And that’s OK. As far as I know, Sondheim had no history of murdering strangers and baking them into pies, yet Sweeney Todd is an effective piece of theatre. When I look at where Company fits in musical theatre history, it’s hard to ignore its place as one of the first R-rated musicals. There’s a dance representing sex. Orgasms! Waking up the next morning and, after some deliberation, having more sex. There’s guys fixing up Bobby with a girl because she’s into kama sutra. (Boy, a lot of people are going to Google their way to this paragraph and be very disappointed.)

In the largest misinterpretation of a musical I can think of, an enormous confederacy of dunces looked at Company and decided that Bobby, deep down, was gay. Doesn’t his pained “Oh God!” at the end of the song, Barcelona, convey revulsion at having more sex with that stewardess? Or this lyric the couple friends sing: “Who is a flirt, but never a threat.” If husbands and wives don’t see Bobby’s potential for adultery, he must be gay, right? The man who, in 1970, is merrily playing the field (of women) without proposing marriage is seen as unable-to-commit-because-what-he-really-wants-is-a-man.

Except that’s not the musical Sondheim and Furth wrote. It might be a premise for an interesting musical, but Company isn’t it. Compare William Finn’s trilogy about Marvin, a happily married man who discovers he’s gay: In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland are wacky as well as moving and truthful. Now, before you point out that Company has a new book scene, involving talk of man-to-man encounters inserted into a revision some decades later, there is no evidence that this was an idea they considered in the original. It’s an incredibly awkward scene in which Bobby is unsure whether Peter is joking with him. Watching it, I’m unsure whether Bobby’s joking back, with his admission about a couple of experiments with guys. Like almost any scene tacked on to an old musical, it stands out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t make sense, because the rest of the musical so convincingly portrays Bobby as the typical swingin’ bachelor, loving loving gals and only gals.

I’m told by gay friends of a certain age that, back in the day, some bachelors, feeling attraction to other men, tried to repress it by sleeping with many women. That, too, could make for an interesting musical. But Company ain’t it.

Sondheim’s quoted in the Times as saying he’s “rewriting lyrics here and there and rewriting some of the dialogue, though as little as possible since George isn’t around.” Damn right he’s not around: George Furth died a few years ago, and this monkeying around with his words and oft-stated intentions doesn’t let him rest in peace. I think it’s fair to say Company is the best thing he ever did. Good writing involves considering every aspect of your main characters, including – most definitely in this case – their sexuality. Bobby is conceived as straight, and this informs everything he says, everything he does, even how he looks at the world. “Here and there” and “some of the dialogue” can’t comprise the radical surgery needed to reorient Bobby Baby.

I hate to see Sondheim potchkeying around with his revolutionary hit of 43 years ago; I prefer the truly new to a ill-considered revisal. John Kander has a new show on the boards and he’s further into his eighties. Somebody, before a day goes by, needs to send a ghost to Turtle Bay to say “Give us more to see.”

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