Proposing a Fresh Toast, Company Opens on Broadway

News   Proposing a Fresh Toast, Company Opens on Broadway Company, the marriage-minded musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, is populated by couples who carry a lot of baggage. In director John Doyle's new Broadway production — opening Nov. 29 — the heavy-lifting is in the form of actors lugging muted trumpets or hoisting saxophones and even wheeling a cello around the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
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Ra Photo by Paul Kolnik

Doyle won a 2006 Best Direction Tony Award for reinventing Sondheim's Sweeney Todd with actors who accompanied themselves with onstage instruments (Mrs. Lovett had a tuba, Sweeney a guitar). Now, in Company, the nervous 1970 musical comedy about a bachelor named Bobby navigating the emotional jungle of single life, the "good and crazy" people who are his married friends, sing and play the soundtrack of their lives like it's never been played in the past.

The effect one might walk away with is that most of Robert's pals are literally employed as musicians in New York City — and that maybe ditzy stewardess April secretly moonlights with local orchestras. Doyle, of course, does not want you to think too literally about the instruments in their hands.

It's up to Bobby (played by above-the-title Raúl Esparza) to listen to their tunes (freshly orchestrated by music supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell) and come to a conclusion — pick up the notes — and move forward.

Esparza does not play an instrument until his finale/breakthrough, for which he fingers "Being Alive" on a black grand piano that is a central image on David Gallo's spare (mostly black) set.

Previews for this third Broadway production of the exploration of marriage, monogamy and modern relationships began Oct. 30. This production originated at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the spring with the same cast, director and creative team. Producers swooped in and brought it to Broadway. The show is set in present day, not in the swingin' 1970s.

Here's how producers characterize the groundbreaking musical: "Long before 'Sex and the City,' Company took an unconventional look at love and commitment in a complex modern New York. The show is an honest, funny and sophisticated portrayal of five married couples as seen through the eyes of their mutual friend Robert, a bachelor evaluating the pros and cons of wedded life."

In service of Doyle's seamless storytelling style, some numbers are clipped and bleed right into dialogue. For example, in recent previews, "Another Hundred People" and "The Ladies Who Lunch" — traditionally, potential bring-down-the-house numbers — got no applause, by design. The same was true in Doyle's Sweeney Todd: There was no chance for the audience to break the tension, and audiences and critics didn't seem to care about the absence of an ovation for Big Numbers. (The actors may or may not feel differently.)

The Company cast also includes Barbara Walsh as sour Joanne, Heather Laws as anxious Amy; Keith Buterbaugh as Harry; Matt Castle as Peter; Robert Cunningham as Paul; Angel Desai as Marta; Kelly Jeanne Grant as Kathy; Kristin Huffman as Sarah; Amy Justman as Susan; Leenya Rideout as Jenny; Fred Rose as David; Bruce Sabath as Larry; Elizabeth Stanley as April.

Unlike the original Harold Prince-directed staging, this time around, "everybody is dressed in kind of what I would call very sophisticated 'New York black' — the cocktail party image," Doyle explained. "In a sense, it's so simply done and there's so little stuff on stage that it does give it a kind of timeless quality."

Company features set design by Tony Award winner David Gallo, costume design by Tony Award winner Ann Hould-Ward, sound design by Andrew Keister and lighting design by Thomas C. Hase. The creative team also includes David Lawrence (hair and wig design), Angelina Avallone (make-up design), Telsey + Company (casting), Adam John Hunter (associate director), Gary Mickelson (production stage manager), Lynne Shankel (resident music supervisor).

The new Broadway production is produced by The Routh/ Frankel/Viertel/Baruch Group and the Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulchin/Bartner, Darren Bagert (co-producers of the recent Broadway production of Sweeney Todd) and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

The cast also includes Renée Bang Allen, Brandon Ellis, Jane Pfitsch, David Garry, Jason Ostrowski, Jessica Wright, Katrina Yaukey.

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The original production of Company opened on Broadway at the Alvin (now the Neil Simon) Theatre on April 26, 1970. Prince directed. The musical garnered 14 Tony Award nominations (the record until The Producers in 2001), winning six, including Best Musical. (Take a look back at the original 1970 Playbill magazine in Playbill.com's Playbill Archives feature).

Company was last seen on Broadway for a limited Roundabout Theatre Company engagement in 1995. It is considered one of the American musical theatre's major concept musicals, expanding the musical theatre form with its fractured storytelling and nervous rhythms.

Robert processes his loneliness as he interacts with his married pals and women he (unsuccessfully) dates.

Because the show is already so theatrical and fragmented — it can be argued that the show is going on in Robert's mind — the idea of actors playing their own instruments was a more natural fit to Company than to Sweeney Todd, Doyle previously told Playbill.com.

"I suppose conceptually it's a little easier," he said. "The great bonus you get with Company is that the actors are on stage all the time because they have to be. You get a very strong sense of 'company.' You get a strong sense of these people who are in Bobby's head or in his mind or in his presence. That was easier. And it's a book musical in the way Sweeney isn't — it has scenes to play as opposed to Sweeney, which is pretty nearly through-sung. And because you've got 14 characters that are so defined and no ensemble as such, it was kind of easier to put a musical voicing along with each character. 'Easier' is a difficult word. Sweeney is such a complex piece of storytelling and it took a long time to evolve and find. This hasn't taken so long."

Doyle agrees that the show operates in the mind of Robert.

"We're trying to make sure it even looks like it's in Bobby's mind — it is a play about the mind, and about a man who finds it so difficult to commit or connect," Doyle said. "Equally, it's a very funny script, you want it to be as accessible and as much fun as it can be as well."

The score includes some of Sondheim's best-known music and lyrics: "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Barcelona," "Being Alive," "Sorry-Grateful," "Another Hundred People," "Side by Side by Side," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" and more. "Marry Me a Little," cut from the original, has been re-inserted, which is part of the licensed script.

Doyle's orchestrator and music supervisor for Company is Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the popular and respected New York City music director who was a favorite of composer Cy Coleman, and has worked with everyone from Michael John LaChiusa to budding theatrical songwriters.

"She's amazing!" Doyle said. "She's done a wonderful job. What Mary-Mitchell has done, which I think is great, is she's held on to the quality of the sound of the songs, but taken some the 1970s rhythmic sort of feel out of it, so it makes it a little more lyrical at times, which I think is lovely."

The Barrymore Theatre is at 243 W. 47th Street. For tickets, visit Telecharge.com, or call (212) 239-6200.

The company of <i>Company</i>.
The company of Company. Photo by Paul Kolnik