The NY Philharmonic recently did a production of Sondheim's Company starring Neil Patrick Harris (also featuring Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Patti LuPone, et alia), and it was filmed and then shown in movie theatres around the country on three days this past week.

I went to Sunday's showing, the final one, and liked it a lot.

The show first opened on Broadway in 1970, and I'm not sure how I've entirely missed ever hearing any of the songs from it. I like some Sondheim a lot, but this is one of several of his major shows that I've never seen or heard. Must do something about that.

I really liked most of the songs in “Company”—catchy, funny, insightful. There were a couple of slow parts—a couple of bits that went on too long, and I suspect that “The Ladies Who Lunch” is supposed to be one of those climactic show-stopping numbers like “Send in the Clowns,” but it did nothing for me at all—and I didn't like the last third as much as the first two-thirds; still, a good musical, and a good production of it.

I felt that Neil Patrick Harris was absolutely perfect for the part of Bobby. But now that I look around at info about other productions—including the filmed version of the 2006 Broadway revival, which I might have seen instead of today's show if I'd known it existed, which would've been too bad—I get the impression that Bobby is generally or often portrayed as an empty and lonely guy who desperately craves fulfillment that he's not getting. Whereas in NPH's rendition, I felt like he was pretty ambivalent, like he saw plenty of value in the life he was living. Which I liked a lot.

Then again, I may've been projecting. I'm not really in Bobby's situation, but I had a surprising spark of recognition at the tenor of some of his interactions with his encoupled friends. (The happy friendly fond parts, not the parts where he saw how awful some of them were.)

Some aspects of the show were kind of dated—unsurprising for a show forty years old—but some were surprisingly modern. I'd say the show has aged pretty well overall.

I think my favorite song, in a show full of songs I liked, was “Getting Married Today,” possibly my new all-time-favorite patter song, performed excellently well by Katie Finneran as Amy.

Anyway. Company is probably not a good show to see if you're having relationship difficulties, especially if those difficulties involve differences of opinion about levels of commitment. But if you're in the right headspace for it, it's a good show.

I've seen advertising before for Fathom Events shows, where they film a live event and show the resulting movie-like thing at movie theatres. I was always dubious about the concept, but in this case I think it worked pretty well. One particularly interesting thing is that I think they must have had a microphone in the middle of the audience, because the applause sounded very convincingly like it was coming from all around me. (A little bit may've been from people in the movie theatre, but the audience present there with me in person was not large.) A neat effect, and I was surprised at how well it worked to make the experience feel immersive.

I have no particular reason to think this, but I suspect that this version will be available on DVD at some point. If so, I'll probably buy it.

In the meantime, I'm buying the original Broadway cast recording from iTunes; I suspect I won't like it quite as much, but the available snippets sound pretty good.

Overall, I'd place this solidly in my middle tier of Sondheim shows. It's not as good as A Little Night Music or Sweeney Todd, but I liked it more than West Side Story or Sunday in the Park with George. (Except that I still love “Color and Light” from the latter.) I think I'd put it somewhere roughly level with Into the Woods, though I only saw that once, long ago on PBS, and haven't heard the music since, and don't remember it terribly well. I've still never seen or heard Gypsy, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along, or anything from Assassins onward.

One last thing about Company, or at least about this production of it: I gotta say, most of the show seemed to me to paint a pretty bleak and cynical picture of marriage and relationships. The couples kept saying that there were both good and bad things about their marriages, but it seemed to me that what we saw was mostly the bad. (With a few exceptions.)

And this last bit, an addendum to that previous paragraph, is a spoiler:

And then at the end of the show, Bobby sings a song that seems to suggest, if I understood right, that life is empty without marriage. And that really surprised me, and kind of put me off, because I felt like it was a pretty big reversal from the rest of the show. It felt a little like a consolatory attempt to make the show palatable to mainstream audiences, by saying “Well, despite all its faults, marriage really is the only state in which happiness and fulfillment are possible.” But after the evidence presented by the show up to that point, I had a hard time believing it.

Still, it's a good song, and that's a pretty minor flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable show.

3 Responses to “Company”

  1. jennreese

    I think your interpretation of the musical as marriage = bad overall is the same as mine. The ending felt like Broadway’s version of a tacked-on Hollywood ending. “Except that marriage is awesome, all you married people! Especially you tourists who we hope will see our musical when you’re visiting NYC!”

    A Little Night Music and Into the Woods might be my favorites, followed closely by Sweeney Todd. I liked Company, but I’d put it down with Anyone Can Whistle and Assassins. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen Sunday in the Park with George — need to fix that!

  2. shmuel

    Regarding the ending seeming to be a reversal from the rest of the show… while I will grant that the musical is not entirely coherent, I think this has much to do with what you noted earlier about NPH’s performance differing from Bobby’s usual portrayal. You seem to take this as a positive, but this is the price you pay for it.

    I didn’t think this production really worked. Well, let me take that back. It worked as a flashy, big-smiles, good-time revue with big stars putting on a big show with big song and dance numbers. It just didn’t have any heart. The 2007 production left me depressed for a week. (Granted, I saw it just before my 35th birthday, which was massively bad timing, but I maintain that this production could never have had that effect.) Which, in my book, means the 2007 production wins, hands down.

    Though I thought the “The Ladies Who Lunch” was the best part of this one, with Patti LuPone being the ringer who almost managed to transcend the production she was in, so possibly we just have very different preferences here.

    (On the other hand, I do love “Getting Married Today.”)

  3. shmuel

    Incidentally, I don’t think the message at the end is meant to be “life is empty without marriage.” More like “life is empty whether you’re married or not, so you might as well get with the program and be with somebody else. It’s not like you have anything to lose.” But of course it’s the married friends making the sales pitch, and it’s by no means a given that Bobby buys it.

    That said, the show is a kaleidoscope of perspectives (in various shades of bleakness), and I wouldn’t privilege any given one of them over any other. And the ending is left ambiguous enough to function as a Rorschach test…


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