I have always been a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, including it in my own top three Sondheim list along with A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. The book is not one of the greatest—for a musical comedy, it has far too few really hilarious situations and not nearly enough good laughs. This is probably one of the reasons that it was only a modest success in its day—690 shows in New York, plus some small revivals in 1993 (with the original company) and 1995. This is hardly the track record of Fiddler on the Roof or Cats; but musically, as good as the former and, in my opinion, trouncing the latter.
The storyline has also not worn well, touching on the sexual revolution and the need and necessity (or absence) for marriage. It is, in a few words, a completely dated, hip musical, and this may be one of the reasons it was not more successful. The whole musical has Bobby (the protagonist) struggling with his ambivalence about getting married, and he is encouraged pretty much not to by his male friends, while the female ones are continuously trying to set him up—though jealous of anyone he goes out with. At the end, in the closing “Being Alive”, he finally decides to embrace the idea of marriage, egged on by these same friends who are now—suddenly—telling him that he is missing the point and joys of matrimonial bliss. Sondheim felt that this turnaround was a cop out, and I think he was right, but Hal Prince insisted on it. Hearing the whole show today is anachronistic for sure, but Sondheim’s music is so superb, and his lyrics stunningly effective, even now. The music, to be sure, does have a bit of a dated feel to it, but listening now you simply won’t care—you’ll be singing along in no time, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for days. And the lyrics have been assaulted by political correctness. Just listen to “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, the Andrews Sisters number in tight three-part harmony. Referring to Bobby, three of his current girlfriends are singing about the things that drive them, well, crazy, and one of the original lyrics sported these lines:
“I could understand a person, if it’s not a person’s bag; I could understand a person, if a person was a fag.”
Well, someone decided that this was just not proper, and so the new line goes:
“I could understand a person, if he said to go away; I could understand a person, if he happened to be gay.”
The new version may smooth some ruffled feathers, if there ever were any, but the original definitely had more bite, and having seen and organized a production of the show many years ago, it definitely was a lot funnier.
The original cast was also something to behold, almost a who’s who of Broadway stars for the next 20 years: Dean Jones (yes, of That Darned Cat fame), Beth Howland, Elaine Stritch (whose “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” simply cannot be topped), Donna McKechnie (who would be such a smash in A Chorus Line a few years later with her stunning “Music and the Mirrors” dance), Charles Kimbrough—the list goes on. Though Dean Jones was undergoing a severe life crisis at the time with his own divorce, and was not ready for the demands of a New York show, he agreed to one month and the cast recording, but was replaced by Larry Kert (of West Side Story fame), and the entire case with Kert recorded it again in London a few years later. Those two recordings have stood alone, until now.
This show, directed by John Doyle, is one of those new-fangled concepts where all of the actors do double duty as the musicians also, and they are quite good. (This show must have been a bear to cast.) It took to the stage in 2006 and promptly won a Tony award for Best Revival, as the original took five Tonys in 1971. The set is quite sparse, unlike the 1970 steel and metal sets that seemed oh-so-urban, and only a single Corinthian column graces the stage with a piano, and the other instruments held by the singers. They are sensational—this is very well sung and played, and all of these folks are exceptionally talented. Musically, it is quite toned down, instrumentally if not vocally, where the power is quite formidable. But because we have a set number of people playing and singing, the effect is more of a chamber group, or of hearing something in summer stock where a full orchestra could not be obtained. Of course, this is no summer stock, but Broadway, and no one will feel cheated, but there is a different sound. Jonathon Tunick’s 1970 sensational and appropriate orchestrations used a full ensemble with a distinctive seventies feel, and a robust big band sound. It did tend to date this work, but this work is dated anyway. I cannot say that the new arrangements in any way “update” this sound to 2006; in fact, the absence of high hat cymbal and the spiky, spunky shots of the original are now replaced with instrumental filigree that sometimes dates this work even further back, like turn of the century 1900s. There are a few advantages, such as the smaller ensemble allowing certain subtleties of harmony to come through that I had never heard before. But it cannot complete with the original.
It is good to see Nonesuch continue to make such fine recordings of American musicals, something they have been at for a while now. They give the cast great sound, and the musical values are of the absolute highest standards. Though I have a lot of concerns about this version of the show, I can say that I am thrilled that it is still alive and well, and that some patrons at least have the good sense to make it an unqualified hit. Raul Esparza is an excellent Bobby, throwing everything he has into the role. He is not as good as Dean Jones, but is better than Larry Kurt on the London Cast Recording. If you are only having one, you must have the original New York recording, and the sound is more spectacular in its midprice CD reincarnation than ever. But if you love this piece like me, you will be in good Company for days on end as you hum these great tunes over and over again.
— Steven Ritter