The 2007 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, and likely the original as well, is a show peppered with painful truths and emotional heartbreak, but filled mostly with caricature. The serious subject matter is unfortunately often reduced to cartoonish images of marriage, which bog down the true heart and ambition of this musical.
Company explores the lives of white upper-middle class New Yorkers and their relationship problems. The dialogue is typically blunt and up-front about this subject matter, which already sets the tone for an unrealistically ambitious musical; either Sondheim or book writer George Furth must view married people as constantly discussing their marriage, and how their lives are different relative to single people. This creates a very interesting commentary on contemporary romance, but also subverts who should be very real, three-dimensional people, into individuals who speak of themselves in the broad, sweeping strokes of marital status and love in the urban world.
The excellent score, with witty lyrics and uncharacteristically catchy music (by Sondheim’s standards), is broken down by clunky, unrealistic dialogue by Furth. There is a particular sequence towards the beginning, in which a playful ditty is broken up by a facepalm-worthy series of karate moves by one of the couples. The audience in the PBS recording ofCompany was roaring with laughter, so at least somebody liked it.
Granted, this is a show about unhappy New Yorkers meant for an audience of middle-class, likely married, and probably cynical New Yorkers. Maybe I’m just the wrong demo for a musical like this, but even as a young man I recognize there is more to marriage than the caricature it is reduced to throughout most of the show.
About halfway through, however, Company takes a sudden turn for the mature, with fantastic introspective songs such as “Marry Me a Little,” revealing the protagonist Bobby’s inability both to commit and to find someone that would even have him. This, in my opinion, is the real heart of this show, of striking the balance between wanting independence and just finding somebody who’s willing to have you. This sense of loneliness is what really hits home, for me at least, certainly more so than the bickering and unrelatable couples we deal with for most of the show.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bobby starts out seeing his married friends as these cartoonish buffoons and he matures and sees that there is more to marriage than this ridiculous display (though that would be weirdly postmodern?). By the end of the show, Bobby and the quality of the script have both matured, hitting this emotionally tragic theme much stronger, such as in the excellent finale “Being Alive.”
My disappointment in Company is mostly from the fact that the show does hit these wonderful strong notes, and I wish this strength pervaded throughout the entire musical. It is certainly a very good play, but it only grazes the greatness that it could and should have achieved.