Last Wednesday D and I went to Company with MX.

It was at the Theatre Royal.  Amazingly, I have only been there twice, first in 1978 for the first Sydney season of The Club and secondly in 1984, to see Nicholas Nickleby.  That’s because the theatre’s usual fare, of musicals and commercial touring shows, is not my cup of tea – though I regret not having seen Titanic late last year, which closed early.

I went because I have recently acquired a taste for Sondheim: last year I saw Side by Side by Sondheim, which was basically a medley of his best songs to an extremely thin dramatic pretext, at the Seymour Centre; earlier this year I enjoyed Opera Australia’s Sweeney Todd more than I expected to.

To quote Wikipedia on Company:

Originally entitled Threes, its plot revolves around Bobby (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, let alone marriage), the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Unlike most book musicals, which follow a clearly delineated plot, Company is a concept musical comprised of short vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, linked by a celebration for Bobby’s 35th birthday.

Company was among the first musicals to deal with adult problems through its music. As Sondheim put it, “they are middle-class people with middle class-problems.” It is also one of the first musicals where the songs commented on the characters in the play instead of furthering the plot, a device which became a Sondheim standard.

These days, notwithstanding Jane Austen’s “truth usually acknowledged,” it is more likely that a single 35-year-old man is likely to be thought to be gay than merely in want of a wife.  Company was the Broadway hit of 1970.  The book and (I think) some lyrics were updated for a revival in the 1990s.  As a result, it is difficult to historically “place” the show’s treatment of this issue.  The three girlfriends seem to forestall that particular line of inquiry in relation to Bobby, but because the show is about marriage and male-female relations, it is a question that is touched upon.

In the first act, to quote again from Wikipedia, Robert visits his friends, Peter and Susan,

on their apartment terrace they can sort of almost see the East River from. They seem like a perfect couple, apart from her frequent fainting spells. He’s Ivy League, she’s a southern belle, and they love each other very much. Robert innocently flirts with Susan, telling Peter that if they ever break up, he wants to be the first to know. Well, they reply, he’s the first to know. They’re getting divorced.

In the second act:

Robert takes another girlfriend, Marta this time, to visit Peter and Susan’s terrace. They’ve gotten their divorce. Peter flew to Mexico to get it, and it was so nice there he phoned Susan and she joined him there for a vacation. They’re still living together. They have too many responsibilities to actually split up, and their relationship has actually been strengthened by their divorce. Susan takes Marta inside to make lunch, and Peter asks Robert if he’s ever had a homosexual experience. They both admit they have. Robert asks Peter if he’s gay, which he denies, but Peter questions if mankind wouldn’t prefer to just “ball it” if it weren’t for social norms and wonders if he and Robert could ever have something. Robert, clearly uncomfortable, laughs the conversation off as a joke as the women return.

In his review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bryce Hallet criticises this scene:

There is a fleeting moment in the love-crazy puzzle when Bobby confesses to having had a homosexual experience. He quickly laughs it off as though such a revelation hardly matters. The scene is more comical than convincing, and a little jarring.

I’m not sure that the scene is comical, but I agree it is not entirely convincing and also rather jarring. My interpretation of the scene (oh dear, here we go again, speculating about fictional characters!) is that Peter is the one who is gay, and that the phenomenom the script is ever so lightly touching on is the position of married men, circa 1970, discovering they are gay.  Along the way, homosexuality is seen as a field of freedom and lack of commitment – two aspects which AIDS and the current embourgeoising enthusiasm for gay marriage have historically overwritten.

Throughout the show, I did find it odd that there we were (a gay couple and a woman friend) watching a story about male-female relations and a straight third man.  MX, who is a few years older than I, is a confirmed single woman.  After the show she was complaining about social prejudices in favour of marriage.  As we dropped MX off on our way home, she thanked me for arranging it all.  I only just bit my lip in time (although probably not in time for her not to notice) to stop myself making some light remark about how of course it was easier for me to arrange because there were already two of us.  Instead I mumbled something about working close to the theatre and the box office (it’s a Ticketek show, so that’s pretty lame). 

The funny thing is, the remark I suppressed was not even true.  I am quite happy to arrange to go to a concert or an opera on my own, if need be: it was small talk which brought out the socially conventional.

The show was good, apart from the prevalence of string synth sounds in the economically small orchestra and some problems with the sound mix and approach to amplification, particularly in ensemble numbers.  There’s quite a lot of food for thought, and some great songs.  I’m really warming to Sondheim.

One Response to “Company

  1. Company company in trouble « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] company in trouble Kookaburra, the producer of Company has got into trouble.  The company does not employ any understudies.  Last week, when one of the […]

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