Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 show Company, built around a string of short plays by George Furth, is the modern musical at its most peculiar—meaning both “distinctive” and “odd.” Company is eminently distinctive: No other musical is remotely like it, and very few have been written with such an individual style and such distinguished skill. At the same time, Company is a remarkably odd work, a set of vignettes with no central action, linked by a passive-aggressive hero whose inner needs remain undefined from first to last: Bobby is the kind of guy who, blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, can’t think of anything to wish for; in his climactic song, he begs for somebody else to make him into something.
Where most musicals err in striving too desperately to be loved, Company is unique—or was, until joined by some later Sondheim shows—in its almost defiant desire not to be liked. Though its longings are warm, its characteristic tone is the peculiarly Manhattanite sound of East Side snobbery: brittle, socially competitive, and off-putting. The show often satirizes this tone but as often revels in it: Joanne, the character who looks down her nose most effectively and systematically, gets the bulk of the memorable moments. Company belongs to a peculiar Broadway subgenre, too, in presenting this mode of hauteur as a plea for sympathy, as if condescending to others were a confession of existential despair: Joanne, who thinks she can alleviate her spiritual crisis by purchasing Bobby’s sexual favors, is the loneliest person in the show.
The loneliest, that is, except for Bobby himself, the mystery man who probably isn’t gay but doesn’t seem particularly straight, who views his apartment as a place to pass through in between social engagements, and who (like most of his married friends) doesn’t seem to come from anywhere or have any particular occupation. An East Side Everyman who isn’t quite anybody, Bobby is an abstraction in a business suit, an unknown quantity whom, in earlier productions, you might have liked if he had ever let you get close enough to figure out who he was. But where previous Bobbys were charmers like Larry Kert and Boyd Gaines, Raul Esparza, in John Doyle’s new production, is the first to display the character’s not-quite negativity— as if it, too, were now an endearing sign of human helplessness. Motionless, his hands clenched at his sides or jammed in his pockets, carefully keeping a maximal distance from everyone else, Esparza’s Bobby is literally a nonmusical presence: In Doyle’s production, the other characters are also the orchestra. Until he finally sits down at the piano for “Being Alive,” Esparza’s Bobby is the guy who can’t or won’t play along.
That final moment brings an intense emotional release, and Esparza, having held doggedly to his grim task till that point, plays it for all it’s worth. Still, getting there is a very hard haul for a show already as spiky in its writing as Company. The writing is New York-y, mixing sass and brass with its bleak outlook and snotty repartee; Doyle’s production, dark and hieratic, offers a distinctly European take on it. David Gallo’s set is a barren but vaguely palatial waiting room, its focal point a huge, freestanding Corinthian column on the base of which Bobby often stands, putting himself on a pedestal as another way of keeping his distance. The contrapuntal cries of “Bobby baby” that open each act, meant to convey the hectic superficiality of Manhattan socializing, are staged in the dark, with processions of silhouetted figures entering as if this were Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, only without candles. As in his earlier production of Sweeney Todd, Doyle’s method has a kind of half-success, losing as much in juiciness and laughter as it gains in chilling impressiveness. Not that the staging is without humor: The close-harmony trio in which Bobby’s girlfriends kvetch about his cold-fish treatment of them is all the funnier when they accompany the kvetch with blats on their alto saxes. But often, again as in Sweeney, the gimmick creates a gray area in which you aren’t sure whether the staging is a matter of intent or of instrumental convenience. And the singing and dancing, which are the normal procedure in musicals, get considerably hampered when actors have to blow into a mouthpiece or sit scraping away at a cello. Doyle’s production looks and sounds impressive. But it also adds an extra layer of aridity to the bleakness that was already there, pushing the piece a little further away from us. I’ll probably remember it all my life; I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it.