Will London’s Gender-Bending Company Transfer to Broadway?

A new gender-bending version of Stephen Sondheim's show "Company" played recently in London. Heresy or a brand new lease on life? And will it come to Broadway?
Rosalie Craig

Slip on your bowler hats, knock your knees, twinkle your jazz hands, and now switch genitals. Say what? If you’re not familiar, Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” debuted on Broadway in 1970, centering around the unmarried Bobby who is pressured by friends to get hitched even though their marriages seem riddled with dysfunction and unhappiness. Although requests over the decades have come asking Mr. Sondheim to allow Bobby to be portrayed as a gay man, he had always refused, insisting the show was not at all autobiographical and truly was the story of an unmarried 35-year-old straight man.

However, in a different kind of reversal, Mr. Sondheim went ahead and approved a radical new take, making Bobby into Bobbie, an unmarried 35-year-old straight woman, for a production that opened on London’s West End in October 2018.

Trendy or novel? For most, it’s not such a radical idea. For purists, it’s blasphemy.

Peter and I were lucky enough to see this new take on “Company” before it closed at the end of March 2019. Other than knowing Patti Lupone and Mel Giedroyc of (yes) “The Great British Bake-Off”, we had not heard of any other cast member but were greatly intrigued by the concept. Here’s a pic I took surreptitiously from our seats in the Grand Circle. The neon logo on the curtain set the tone, giving us a preview of the set and lighting design which was sleek, modular, and deceptively simple with pieces moving about revealing all kinds of hidden surprises.

Director Marianne Elliott got the idea from her business partner Chris Harper and then approached Sondheim whom she knew. Marianne Elliott is a theatre director of great acclaim having directed “War Horse”, “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, and the recent “Angels in America” revival, and Sondheim respected her tremendously. He was resistant at first but as the idea evolved, he came on board. With his watchful eye and some text changes to alter names and pronouns, the show survived all naysayers and opened to great acclaim at the John Gielgud Theatre.

Although we’d seen “Company” previously on Broadway with Raul Esparza as well as the Neil Patrick Harris-led Lincoln Center production that broadcast in cinemas, we felt this production slayed them both.

Don’t just take my word for it. Along with glowing reviews, the show won four Olivier Awards (British equivalent to the Tony’s) including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Supporting Actress for Patti Lupone, Best Supporting Actor for Jonathan Bailey, and Best Set Design for Bunny Christie.

If you’re a Sondheim purist, you’re probably clutching your pearls. The awards are meaningless! This production is an abomination! All wrong! I actually did overhear something like that during intermission at this London production. Luckily I’m not a purist at least about Sondheim. To me, his works are like Shakespeare’s in that they’re timeless and should be done every which way possible since they’re sturdy enough to withstand interpretation.

Enough intro, let’s get to the show. The lights dimmed and from the very top of the show, which was of course immaculately produced on every level as you would expect, we found that director Marianne Elliott had delightfully utilized every element under her control from the sets, props, choreography, to the action all to mine the acid-churning anxiety of a 35-year-old unmarried woman (by contrast, an unmarried man of the same age was of concern in 1970 but not so much today) now present in the text. As an example, when Bobbie returns from her birthday party to her cramped apartment, she wrestles with a giant balloon trumpeting her ripe old age of 35. Then her friends’ suffocating concern adds to the claustrophobia as they crowd in to sing the familiar (if differently spelled) “Bobbie”, “Bobbie”, “Bobbie Baby”, “Bobbie Bubi” of the title song.

As written, Bobbie is a fairly passive character, observing more than driving the story. This approach was done on purpose, with Sondheim and book writer George Furth challenging the conventional musical theatre structure where the hero or heroine drives the story to achieve their goal. However, a passive character can be difficult to play. Thus, Ms. Elliott lets us in on Bobbie’s interior life and allows her angst to gnaw away through the entire show. Along with the looming balloons, she’s bedeviled by her ticking biological clock, the frantic party games at her birthday party, the pressure from her friends to get married despite their own unhappiness, and glimpses into a depressing future with different partners and children, all framed inside cramped sets reflecting a boxed-in New York life. There’s even electronic dance music added to a bar scene that adds menace and dread.

Not to say the show was dark and dank. No, it was very fun and funny. Rosalie Craig as Bobbie was terrific, dazzling us with all her skills as an actress and singer to wring equal parts drama and comedy from the role. I truly hope she goes to Broadway with the show.

Patti Lupone would be the real draw for Broadway fans, playing the cynical and screwed-up Joanne (made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original production), somehow escaping the gender switch. Lucky for us, Ms. Lupine came out of apparent retirement to do this, obviously seeing a great opportunity to revisit a character she had already played (in the 2011 Neil Patrick Harris production) but now able to originate a whole new take on the character due to the changed relationship with Bobbie, now her girlfriend and adversary. Ms. Lupone sounded great, not as wobbly as I’d seen her recently on TV, and she really hustled during the show, moving tables and chairs with the rest of the cast showing no sign of impairment due to her recent hip surgery.

Then there’s Jonathan Bailey! He pretty much stole the show as Jamie, the panicked groom singing (Not) “Getting Married Today” (they changed Amy and Paul to Jamie and Paul). Suffice it to say that I became an instant fan. His explosive nervous energy along with the hilarious and ingenious staging (I won’t spoil it, just in case it does transfer) combined to send the show into orbit.

For fans of “The Great British Bake-Off”, Mel Giedroyc was superb as Sarah, seemingly playing herself which was great for me since I’d love to be her new best friend (sorry Sue). The rest of the cast was terrific (with some great eye candy); most were British I believe but sported flawless accents. The music and all the technical elements were perfection. We would expect nothing less. Hats off to everyone.

So you think we liked it? So much so that at Intermission, we went online and booked tickets to see it again in two days. Still, even after seeing it twice, I’d love to see it again if it comes to the United States. Although there were some scattered announcements last Fall about it moving to Broadway, nothing has been confirmed and so we can only hope. I think it would be a big hit here, not only for the curious but for general audiences who will start to connect with the main character in ways not previously possible.

As a postscript, we happened to be sitting next to a woman who had seen the original 1970 Broadway production and she said she loved this new take on the show, saying that indeed the gender switch made “Company” relevant to today.

Postscript II: After all was said and done, Sondheim himself said, “Nobody ever wants to play Bobby because you end up standing around watching everyone get the big numbers and you don’t get any of the fun bits and nobody cares about you – but not anymore. I wish I’d written it for a woman from the start.” So there.

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