From the Archives: Elaine Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Larry Kert, and the Cast of Company on Modern Marriage

From the Archives   From the Archives: Elaine Stritch, Barbara Barrie, Larry Kert, and the Cast of Company on Modern Marriage
With a gender-reversed revival of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth classic now in the West End, we look back to our interview with the original Broadway cast.
Larry Kert and company in Company.
Larry Kert and company in Company.

What with counter culture, not to mention the raising of Consciousness Three, the future of marriage is under scrutiny from many quarters these days and Broadway is no exception. Witness Company—the prize-winning musical, which is a vivid Brechtian study of relationships that focuses on a New York bachelor named Robert and his married friends. Some playgoers, objecting, no doubt, to the desperate loony reality of the characters they see on stage, have pronounced Company anti-marriage. Not so, say the cast, who are unanimous in believing their show is pro-marriage (even though not all of them are).

Perhaps it’s to be expected that the searing examination of marriage that goes on behind the footlights should lead to some heated discussions backstage. Recently, Playbill dropped by Larry Kert’s dressing room at the Alvin Theatre to listen in.

The discussion began as a dialogue between Larry Kert, who so admirably plays Bachelor Robert in Company, and Elaine Stritch, who is cast as a seductive thrice-married matron who stops the show with the song “Ladies Who Lunch.” In real life both Mr. Kert and Miss Stritch are single.

ELAINE: But I’ve always wanted to get married! I’m not going into the whys and wherefores but I’ve had plenty of chances to marry. I’d like nothing better than to come home and see a man’s suits hanging in my closet.

LARRY: I’m a lot like Robert in Company. I’m not committed to anyone and yet I don’t look forward to being alone for the rest of my life. That’s why I’m in find out why I’m so afraid of emotional commitment to another human being.

ELAINE: Everybody’s afraid! Couples who’ve been married for 30 years wake up in a cold sweat. There are levels of fear. It all depends on how much you do with what you’ve got. I sometimes wonder if some of married friends don’t ask me to come around—alone—to sing for my supper and give ’em a lot of laughs—so they won’t have to cope with each other.”

LARRY: Company is all about how difficult it is to be married and how much more difficult it is to not be married. But being single can be fun.

ELAINE: To me marriage should be the ultimate ball. Should be companionship—delighting in somebody else’s accomplishments. Should be enjoying good sex—spiffy sex. That’s what marriage should be but rarely is. If I fell in love with the right man now and he said, “Will you marry me?” I’d accept so fast. Hell, if he told me to forget the ceremony and move in with him I’d say yes to that too.

LARRY: This may sound crazy but I feel more ready to raise a son than support a wife.

ELAINE: There are women like that—who dream of being mothers instead of wives. But what about the children? How would they react?

At this point Barbara Barrie entered the conversation. In Company she plays an aggressive, karate-practicing wife. Behind the scenes Miss Barrie is Mrs. Jay Jay Harnick, mother of two.

BARBARA: I’m very boring about my children. They give me such joy that’s all I talk about. As far as I’m concerned children are the only reason to perpetuate the institution of marriage. When you have kids your ego is replaced by somebody else—special somebodys—and then the roles you play in marriage… wife, mistress, mother… start mysteriously blending and you get less self-conscious because suddenly there are these roles.

Elaine Stritch in Company.
Elaine Stritch in Company. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Tall, gangly Charles Kimbrough plays Barbara’s teetotally husband in Company.

CHARLES: Modern marriage is being able to wing it when you have to. There are so many surprises—not all of them pleasant—you have to learn how to keep your balance. In Company the on-stage relationships are stripped bare so all you can see are Bobby and his good and crazy friends in the starkest perspective. Ideally one should be able to see one’s own marriage in perspective. Be aware of what’s happening inside it. But that’s not always possible. So maybe it’s enough to admit to the hostility and the competition and the pain that’s part of a working marriage and just keep assuring yourself there is also love.

George Coe and Teri Ralston play the pot smoking couple in Company.

GEORGE: I remember coming back to the city. It was summer and I’d left my wife and kids at the beach. I walked into our empty apartment and stood there in the dark feeling terribly alone. I suddenly realized how much my family meant to me in terms of love and security and I wondered how in God’s name I’d ever function if they stopped existing.

TERI: I’ve never been married so I have a lot of ideas about what I don’t want. I think I’d enjoy being a wife but role playing in marriage scares me. Maybe more than it should. I mean—are those damn games necessary? In Company there are these atypical couples represented on stage—the so-called liberated couple—the couple who never stop competing with each other and so forth. All of them have elaborate facades they hide behind. And yet behind those facades there must be a real self, flailing around trying to get out. I like imagine that in a good marriage the real self surfaces and eventually thrives in spite of role playing. But maybe I’m being too optimistic.

Lary Kert, Charles Braswell and Elaine Stritch in the Broadway musical <i>Company</i>, 1995
Lary Kert, Charles Braswell and Elaine Stritch in the Broadway musical Company, 1995 Martha Swope

Susan Browning, Pamela Myers and Donna McKechnie play swinging single girls.

SUSAN: When I fell in love I got married—although I had some qualms. But I’d been taught at home that you didn’t live together before you got married. Looking back on it I realize I was pressured. Let’s face it—the pressures on a girl in her 20s as opposed to a man in his 20s are for marriage not a career. OK. Well. My marriage didn’t work out so now I’m divorced. But I feel like I’m living half a life. I want to get married again because to me sharing with someone is the natural state. It’s going to be different next time. It’s going to be personal—private—individual—his decision—my decision. Not my family’s, not society’s. Who says you can’t try alternatives and experiment? Live with somebody, share ideas and goals, and love—before marriage? Funny thing happened recently. I went home to visit my parents on Long Island and we sat around watching this documentary about students who were living together off campus in some commune and there they were digging it—discussing it—all very openly. After the show was over my father said, “You know, that seems like a good idea.” And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me you felt that way?” And he said, “You never asked me.”

PAMELA: The one question I asked myself before I got married eight months ago was, “Can I stand to be away from him for more than a couple of hours or is there this longing to always be together?”

DONNA: I still believe in marriage even though I got married for the wrong reasons. Like a lot of people get married for the wrong reasons: I thought my husband was going to be the answer to what was wrong with my life. I never stopped to ask myself was I the answer for him? We’d been living together and that seemed fine but once we were married and we had to demand much more in terms of commitment and responsibility it wasn’t so fine. After my divorce I hated living alone again. I was afraid. Hated the loneliness, hated confronting myself. But the longer I live by myself the more I enjoy it. And I realize I have to enjoy myself before I can enjoy living permanently with another person.

Alice Cannon and John Cunningham play the liberated couple in Company; Steve Elmore plays the loving groom, Beth Howland his paranoid bride.

ALICE: Traditional marriage is oppressive. Til death do us part in handcuffs. More men are afraid of marriage today than women. They’re afraid of losing their identities, their sexuality. They’re afraid of the divorce and alimony because these days men don’t believe that marriage can last. Another reason men are so afraid: we women are changing. Dramatically. We expect more of ourselves and more is expected of us.

I got married when I was 21—my husband was 23. We loved each other but I’m afraid we thought more about the wedding presents we were going to exchange at Altman’s. Eventually we broke up. We couldn’t seem to grow up together. Recently Margaret Mead suggested a two step marriage for young couples. Phase one—you try and work out a stable relationship without having children. Phase two—if you make it to that—you go through a new ceremony and everything—and even get a new license. How’d I hear about this? Well I had this great long talk with my ex-husband the other day….

Larry Kert, Barbara Barrie and Charles Kimbrouch in the Broadway musical <i>Company</i>, 1995
Larry Kert, Barbara Barrie and Charles Kimbrouch in the Broadway musical Company, 1995 Martha Swope

JOHN: My wife and I have a strong sense of family which may be one reason our marriage works. Over the holidays we went back to the Midwest where we celebrated an almost communal Thanksgiving. We sang madrigals and ate too much turkey with a profusion of uncles, cousins, baby nieces and grandparents. Our three children loved it. I’m sure the hippie communes in Vermont and New Mexico have the same goal: to create a warm, rich, together life experience. And marriage is in there in some form. No matter what happens to civilization I think it always will be.

STEVE: I really don’t care to comment on this. I got married when I was very young. I’m still married to the same woman. We have a family. What else can I say? Except that I agree with everything that’s been said.

BETH: I don’t know whether I agree but then you see I’m exactly like the girl I play in Company—I’m terrified of marriage. Because my own experience was so painful. One great thing came out of it—my daughter who’s seven now. I guess I’ll marry again someday but not right now. I’m too busy with my career and trying to understand myself and what I want. I suppose it’s possible to discover yourself beforehand. Or else you suffer needlessly. And you don’t understand why until it’s too late.

Charles Braswell plays Elaine Stritch’s third husband.

CHARLES: I had affairs before I married. But my wife is the only woman who ever bothered to understand me totally. In an affair you don’t have to make the effort to understand. You can exist on fun and games—playing house. You can also walk out. But in a marriage if you do that you’re walking out on some pretty brutal commitments. And maybe even a dream or two.

BARBARA: You know what my personal image of marriage is? Lying on our bed Sunday morning with the Times spread out and the radio playing music and the kids squealing and laughing in the pillows with us. Somebody called marriage “the density of living.” I think that’s a perfect description, don’t you?

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