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    Stephen Sondheim’s Company

    What do you get in marriage? To its credit, the musical Company never actually answers that question.

    By Tara Isabella Burton

    February 3, 2022
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    I used to relate to Bobby: the perennial bachelor protagonist of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 concept musical Company, which uses a non-linear series of vignettes between Bobby and his many married friends to illustrate his journey from aloof alienation to the willingness to love somebody “just enough” – to his final, desperate plea to be held “too close,” hurt “too deep,” and “put through hell.” I, too, wanted the delicate balance of affection and autonomy that characterizes the musical’s standard first-act closer, “Marry Me a Little.” “Keep a tender distance,” Bobby pleads to his imaginary partner, “so we’ll both be free / that’s the way it ought to be.” What’s not to want?

    After all, a union “passionate as hell / but always in control” is in many ways our contemporary ideal of marriage: a vision of the institution, and of romantic love more broadly, as fundamentally contractual. We trade some freedom for some security, some sexual freedom for some sex, guaranteed. We accept limitations on who we naturally are because the trade-offs, we judge, are worth it; what we’re getting – Bobby keeps asking his married friends, fruitlessly, “What do you get in marriage?” – is worth the heartache, the closing off of possibility, the things hidden and unsaid.

    still from the original Broadway production of Company

    Image from the Playbill cover for the original Broadway production of Company From Playbill.com

    To its credit, Company never actually answers that question. Although Bobby ultimately embraces the possibility of marriage, the narrative itself doesn’t suggest that he does so because his friends are particularly happily married (most aren’t; or at least, they don’t obviously display their happiness to Bobby), or because they treat him to particular insights about why the benefits of marriage outweigh its costs. Instead, Company tells a far more complicated and less clear-cut story. It posits that marriage – like birth, like death – is a great mystery, a transformation of the individual self into something less easily self-contained. By the musical’s end, Bobby has not yet found the person he wishes to spend the rest of his life with, but instead reimagines himself as a vulnerable person, one whose personhood must be understood in relationship to the people he loves and who love him. Bobby is ready to open himself to the possibility of change: when one of his oldest friends, the lascivious and flint-eyed (and very married) Joanna propositions him with “I’d take good care of you,” he responds, in a moment of epiphany, “Who will I take care of?”

    The lines are changed slightly in Marianne Elliot’s phantasmagoric, gender-swapped revival of Company, starring Katrina Lenk as Bobbie, now a robust and rambunctious woman of a certain age (it’s her thirty-fifth birthday; but the production suggests Bobbie may have turned thirty-five once or twice before). In Elliot’s staging, Patti LuPone’s Joanne has a slightly altered proposition – that Bobbie might be good for a fling with her adoring husband, Larry: “you’d take good care of him.” Bobbie responds, in horror, “But who will take care of me?”

    It is a testament to the show’s emotional honesty – and its fidelity to the complications of Sondheim’s views of love more broadly – that the swapped line illuminates, rather than obscures, Company’s tensions. Bobbie is not selfish – indeed, Lenk’s vibrantly chaotic performance suggests that she wants to do the right thing, only she can’t figure out what that’s supposed to be. Her married friends seem uniformly restless. Her suitors – a ditzy flight attendant, a sweet homebody, and an exuberant dirtbag – no less than her friends, can’t get past her image as frenetically fun, an image Bobbie herself cannot stop cultivating long enough to develop real intimacy with anybody. And while male iterations of Bobby in past productions have had a tendency to come across as glacial – a Bobby so devoid of personality he’s content to let his married friends slot him into whatever necessary emotional roles they lack – this Bobbie has almost too much personality. She’s a showman, a psychological trapeze artist, actively playing up her role in her friends’ lives as the “company” that dutifully witnesses and affirms their own self-image. She can’t – to quote E. M. Forster and another of Sondheim’s shows – “only connect!”

    Although Elliot’s production is replete with images of ticking clocks and the sound of babies squalling, it avoids the easy route of making a gender-swapped Company a feminist referendum on the Pressures on Women to Have It All. Bobbie isn’t under pressure to have children because society tells her to, or because her friends see her as incomplete without a man. She’s under pressure from life itself – the fact of her biological clock makes her choice to marry or not a more existentially urgent one, rather than, as it might be for a man in his late thirties, merely a question of right now. If anything, Bobbie as a woman rather stacks the deck in favor of her continued singleness: it’s all but a truism, among the generally progressive theatre-going audiences of New York City, that empowered singledom for women is preferable to the kinds of “little things you do together” and “looks you misconstrue together” that characterize Bobbie’s friends’ marriages.

    And yet. There is, this Company suggests, inarticulable profundity in union, in the transformation of the self in love that makes us a little bit less complete, alone. It’s not something anyone can teach or explain. Rather, the choice to open oneself up to another is an existential choice: a choice that can never be translated outside of the moment of decision.

    Vitally, though, Company suggests that this vulnerability isn’t exclusively confined to marriage. Whatever Company’s couples share, through the highs and lows of their respective marriages, they do share with Bobbie: their single friend, but also their audience, their inspiration, the person through whom they live vicariously, the person they sometimes pity. The couples need Bobbie – perhaps more than Bobbie needs them. The company they seek from one another, far from being meant in the blithe sense of respite from boredom, proves instead to be the “company” of a theater production: a group of people existing side by side by side primarily in relationship to one another. Their marriages do not work in isolation, but rather in dialogue with their friendships. It is only through friendship, likewise, that Bobbie gets a glimpse of what marriage can mean.

    Sondheim has, at times, been accused of cynicism; certainly, he was hardly a romantic in the most saccharine of senses. But his idealism – and his optimism – proves far more authentic than any manufactured resolution. This crazy thing we keep trying and failing at, Sondheim suggests, is a thing we should keep on trying to do anyway.

    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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