Sunday, June 1, 2008

Menage a Trois

"There is one awful thing in this life," Jean Renoir's Octave famously observed in Rules of the Game, "and that is that everyone has their reasons." Bobby (Raul Esparza), the hero of Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical, Company, faces a similar dilemma: standing at the center of his friends' social lives ("Never a bother!/Seven times a godfather!," goes a famous line from the number "Side by Side by Side"), he observes everything-- their pot smoking, their arguments, their promiscuity, their sudden kung fu fighting-- with a bemused detachment, always handy with a quip and a sympathetic ear, at once the leading man and the stage director of the glittering whirl ("Whenever I'm around Bobby," one friend observes, "I feel like I'm auditioning for him"). He doesn't judge to their faces, and if he has an opinion, he only shares it with the audience in an aside, as if we're his co-conspirators, his friends at the party. Everyone is allowed their reasons, which allows Bobby to quietly keep them compartmentalized from one another, which allows him to move with ease across a variety of social spaces. The problem is, the same ironic grin that acts as his passport and keeps his friends' craziness at bay is keeping him from connecting with anyone. And that's killing him.

Recently released on DVD, the filmed version of stage director/choreographer John Doyle's 2006 Broadway revival (directed for television by Lonny Price) captures all of this in a dazzling series of wide angle and telephoto lens shots, their constant plays with space visually capturing the tug-and-pull of Bobby's social relations. This sense of the stage/screen as a kaleidoscope is further enhanced by the editing, which often isolates Bobby in close-up-- we see his smile and dancing eyes, but are subtly reminded that he's always just outside the circle, looking in. Such circularity is literalized in Doyle's in-the-round staging: the whole show takes place on a single, sparsely decorated square (courtesy of scenic designer David Gallo) whose abstractions allow for surreal vingettes; when Bobby brings dizzy flight attendant April (Elizabeth Stanley) home after a date, his "bed" is actually the stage's grand piano, a gorgeous embodiment of the production's links between music, meaning and love.



As in Doyle's 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, the actors play instruments on the stage, offering their own accompaniment; because they are always on-stage (Thomas C. Hase's striking light designs throw them into shadow when they're not part of a scene), they act as an emotional Greek chorus that moves in diagonals, circles, zig-zags, like a manic New Orleans marching band: Bobby might feel he doesn't need to commit because he's literally never alone. It makes his hysterical remark in "Side by Side by Side"-- "When you've got friends like mine--!"-- less a cry of thanks than an admission of entrapment. The net effect of staging, lighting, music and movement is to present urban life as a series of Cubist panoramas and incidents-- once we get our bearings on where we are spatially or emotionally, the scene changes, and we must start over again. This shifting, doubled perspective enhances the layered melodies and meanings of Sondheim's music, and adds depth to librettist George Furth's icy jokes: they're funny, but also offer us flashes of warmth and pain beneath their reflective surfaces; as theater critic Martin Gottfried noted when Company first debuted on Broadway in 1970, "Sondheim's new musical...is a tremendous piece of work, thrilling and chilling, glittering bright, really funny (and not so funny)...".



When it opened 38 years ago, Company was an immediate, controversial success, and its reception set the pattern for Sondheim's career for the next fifteen years: wildly divergent critical response, modest success at the box office, and a recognition that, love it or hate it, the expectations for what a musical could be had just shifted. It was not Sondheim's first show: he'd written one almost-produced show in 1954 (Saturday Night), written the lyrics for three others (West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965), and the complete scores for two more (1962's hit A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and 1964's flop Anyone Can Whistle); he also wrote an original musical for television in 1966, Evening Primrose, which would receive a lovely "revival" on CD in 2001, with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead. But between 1965 and 1969, he struggled to get an original show on Broadway, working with librettist James Goldman (brother of screenwriter William) on a show called The Girls Upstairs, which would go through numerous revisions until it appeared in vastly different form as Follies in 1971. Company, then, was the real breakthrough, the show that followed a long layoff and announced a new and even more breathtaking Sondheim to the theater world.

It began as a series of one-act plays by Furth, an actor friend of Sondheim's; Furth had planned to do it all as one show, with the various characters all played by a small cast in different wigs and costumes. But when Sondheim passed the plays on to his close friend Harold Prince, the director-producer nixed that idea, and suggested doing them as a musical. Sondheim liked the plays, and Furth, but was reluctant to write the score, whose add-on quality he feared would make it "Brechtian" (an epithet to the composer). A promise by Prince to produce The Girls Upstairs following the production of Company finally convinced Sondheim, and the result was something quite different from his earlier shows. Perhaps Sondheim's position-- as the writer coming in and adding his voice to the mix-- paralleled Bobby's "outsider looking in" enough to give him a link with the characters; perhaps he was jazzed by the gorgeous orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, a bright young orchestrator who'd just brought a modern pop sound to Promises, Promises the year before; perhaps (as he's endlessly and somewhat defensively claimed in interviews for thirty years) Sondheim is just a good mimic, and found a way to pull out the guts and emotions from Furth's one-liners and musicalize them.

Whatever the case, Company's score shows a wide-ranging talent that touches on ballads ("Being Alive," "Someone Is Waiting"), dance numbers ("Side by Side by Side"), satires and pastiches (like the girl-group number "You Could Drive A Person Crazy"), character-driven humor pieces ("The Little Things You Do Together," "Barcelona"), and songs whose melodic and lyrical invention defies categorization (I guess you could call "The Ladies Who Lunch" a 12 o'clock number, but it's a deeply ironic and fatalistic one, while "Sorry-Grateful" almost feels like an anti-ballad in its honesty). Like Bobby, Sondheim stands both within and outside the show, deconstructing a whole history of theatrical convention while still providing the emotional connections and aching depth those conventions were designed to convey (it didn't surprise me when I recently learned that Sondheim was a big fan of the French New Wave-- they're operating on the same wavelength). There's an intense pleasure in craft (you know you're hearing a master at the top of his game when he manages to lyricize a yawn in "Barcelona"), but never at the expense of character or feeling.

The difference, as theater historian Ethan Mordden noted in his history of seventies Broadway, One More Kiss, was that Sondheim left certain questions unanswered: he might have been working within and through certain song conventions, and might have provided the emotional depth and longing they offered (while, indeed, adding even greater depth and meaning to them), but he was going to leave the note unresolved, not tie up all the loose ends, mess with our sense of space, time, and closure. Decades later, Sondheim would reflect on this :



The "ambivalence" that Sondheim notes in the interview above was well-captured not only by his music and Tunick's brightly nervous orchestrations, but by the entire company (as Mordden notes, the title of the show is a pun on theatrical production). Prince had broken through as a director four years earlier with Cabaret, but Sondheim would be his richest collaborator, the one that set off his imagination in casting and staging, and he controlled the stage as if it were a movie set, using movable scenery, scrims, and lights to "cross-cut" from one space and time to another. Boris Aronson's set was a glittering urban landcape of steel, glass and moving parts (an anecdote as a way of suggesting the tightness of the collaboration: when he was composing the title song, Sondheim called Aronson and grilled him for several minutes about the size of the stage, its dimensions, and how long it would take the working elevator onstage to move up or down to a certain point; this was all because he wanted to get the exact number of beats it would take in the song's intro for Bobby to ride the elevator, walk across the room, and start singing). Most of all, Michael Bennett's choreography found the perfect balance of professionalism and amateurism: like every other member of the team, he deployed his considerable gifts, not just to dazzle (although his numbers did that) but to suggest and illuminate character: as Mordden rightfully notes, you want the dance to look good, but not too good, because we still need to believe these characters are just middle-class, professional people, and not professional performers.

All of this history is necessary to contextualize the achievements of Doyle and his cast and crew. The 2006 Company, while it won the Tony for best revival last year, was slammed in some corners for being a radical change from earlier productions, especially in its use of on-stage instrumentation. It's true on a surface level-- the sonics and scenic design are in an almost completely opposed relationship to Tunick and Aronson's achievement, for instance. But on a deeper level, its radical spirit and willingness to reorient our relationship to the show-- its knowingness about our vast Sondheim geekery, and its willingess to turn that trivia against itself-- is completely in spirit with the original Sondheim/Prince achievement. It comes at the end of a decade of Sondheim revivals and tributes-- including new productions of Saturday Night, Follies, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday In The Park With George, as well as a four-month staging in 2002, in Washington, DC, of nearly every Sondheim show--and is the perfect capper, because its sense of difference reminds us: this is an uncomfortable show. Sondheim is an uncomfortable talent ("I think a writer should scare himself," he says in an interview on the Company DVD), and while he's now a grand old man of theater (due to receive a well-deserved lifetime achievement award at the Tonys this month), his work seriously pissed people off, all the way up through 1984's Sunday In The Park With George, at least. He challenged every convention of musical theater, and in doing so established new conventions, but a true Company should leave us slightly unsettled, even as we whistle its tunes on the way out the door.

Thankfully, Doyle and his brilliant cast are up to the challenge. Not every number comes off-- Angel Desai is a wonderful Marta in the dramatic scenes, funny and smart and perfectly balanced between awareness and delusion, but her "Another Hundred People" doesn't quite come off, feeling less like a number in the show and more like a well-intentioned evening of cabaret. And there were moments when I missed the hard metallic edge of Tunick's orchestrations, the way they just sound like a city (at one point, Marta asks Bobby, "Do you know what the pulse of the city is?," and Bobby quips back, "A busy signal." It's a wonderful joke, not least because Tunick's original orchestrations captured that sound and made it part of the show's texture). For the most part, though, I was reminded again of how durable Sondheim's songs were, and how well the glistening new orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and the various voices brought new life to them. Elizabeth Stanley's April finds the sympathetic core of a ditzy stereotype; Heather Laws' Amy makes neurosis comprehensible and even a little attractive; Bruce Sabath's Larry fleshes out a bit role and makes it a character you wish they'd craft a whole show around; and Barbara Walsh pulls off the impossible task of following Elaine Stritch as Joanne. Watch her in "The Ladies Who Lunch"; I almost curled up in a ball before it started, because it's the best-known number in the show, and as associated with Stritch as "Rose's Turn" is with Ethel Merman, or "Over The Rainbow" is with Judy Garland. How, one thinks, can anyone bring anything new?

The answer is to act it, instead of just singing it. When it was done in 1970, Stritch was in spotlight, the rest of the stage blacked out, almost as if the show disappeared and she was just singing to the audience. In 2006, the stage remains lit, and Walsh's Joanne sings to her co-stars in the bar, as well as to herself. She stumbles across a few notes, intentionally, highlighting that Joanne's been drinking all day, and her timbre is loaded with whiskey regret. She's so fluid in her movement from dialogue to song to dialogue again, and her co-stars' facial reactions are so essential, that for the first time, I really understood how the number fit into the show, and into her character: it's not just a fantastic star number, a great standard, but a cri de coeur, an ironic anthem whose pathos both undercuts and ennobles it. It's a striking moment, and it makes Joanne into something much richer and sadder than just a quip machine or snarky know-it-all: she's becomes the show's most tragic figure.

Which brings us to the much-acclaimed Raul Esparza as Bobby. Yes, he's as fantastic as you might have heard. Yes, he brings rich feeling to his final number, "Being Alive," and the moment is every bit as cathartic and show-stopping as you've been told. But what struck me was how funny he was: all the publicity photos (including the one at the top of this blog post) were so dark and melodramatic that I half-expected him to break out in a number from Passion at some point. But he's wonderfully sly and dexterous with the physical comedy in the first half of the show (watch how often he leaps up on the pillar in the center of the stage when company comes, clinging to it like a security blanket), and very jazzy in his line readings, spinning the jokes just enough to make them pop. All of this is so essential because we need to be seduced by Bobby, need to understand why so many people would want to spend so much time with someone who is-- let's face it-- something of a narcissist. Bobby is a charm monster, and Esparza does such a good job of establishing the charm early on that the monstrousness sneaks up on us as much as it does him, until it threatens to devour him in the second act. It's a difficult menage a trois of humor, heart and deconstructive comedy, one that both Esparza and the show as a whole pull off with considerable aplomb. When Bobby stands alone onstage at the end of the show, the voices of his friends trailing out of his apartment, that ambivalence of which Sondheim speaks is at its peak: is this a moment of triumph, or just a different kind of loneliness?

2 comments:

Bob Westal said...

Believe it or not, I know next to nothing about "Company" -- never seen a production or even listened to the album, but now I've pretty much got to check out this DVD. (I really wish they would do with that pretty much all notable B'way productions -- I'd kill, for example, to see the Sam Mendes "Cabaret" with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson.)

What I find most stunning about this guy Doyle's approach is the casting -- finding people who are good enough actors to pull this kind of thing off who are also good enough musicians to play this kind of material. How many people can even do one of those things?

I don't think I've even met anyone who could do both (well, maybe one or two but they'd have to work REAL hard). Kind of makes you feel a little small.

Brian Doan said...

It really is amazing-- I think the cast spreads the talent a bit-- some are better actors, some better singers, but I agree: how Doyle found all those folks who could also play instruments (while still acting, still staying in character) is really amazing.

The DVD is great, and I'd also recommend (for some reason I forgot to mention it in the post) D.A. Pennebaker's great documentary ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY, which documents the recording of, well, the original cast album. It's a marvelous film, and a great way to "see" the original productionl, or at least its cast, and all the behind-the-scenes egos. And the commentary track has Elaine Stritch and Hal Prince exchanging great anecdotes, many years later, about the production. You'll come out of it with new respect for Dean Jones, the original Bobby, who has a lovely singing voice.