Emmy Award winner Neil Patrick Harris heads an all-star cast in one of the most iconic musicals about the Big Apple ever written as Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ with the New York Philharmonic Friday night on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
Filmed during a staged concert production at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, this revival of Company marks the second time Great Performances has presented Sondheim’s 1970 musical (with book by George Furth) about Robert, a 35-year-old commitment-phobic Manhattan bachelor, and his gaggle of frustrated girlfriends and meddling married chums. Director John Doyle’s intimate, Tony-winning 2006 revival, anchored by a riveting central performance from Raul Esparza (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), found the show’s cast members doubling as musicians, with each performer playing an instrument.
This new production, staged by Lonny Price, features Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani conducting members of the Philharmonic playing Jonathan Tunick’s original 1970 orchestrations arranged for a 35-piece orchestra. The sound is lusher, fuller and far more extroverted, giving all the musical colors in Sondheim’s ground-breaking score their full due.
Among the actors cast as Robert’s (Harris) married friends are two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Katie Finneran (The Michael J. Fox Show), Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), while Robert’s on-stage girlfriends include Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Tony Award winner Anika Nona Rose, whom fans of The Good Wife will recognize from her recurring role as Peter Florrick’s formidable political nemesis Wendy Scott Carr.
When Company opened in 1970, some Broadway theatergoers and critics were put off by the show’s acerbic perspective on marriage. Even the most devoted of the couples orbiting their mutual friend Robert had at least fleeting moments of ambivalence about staying together, while Robert’s growing interest in finding a mate was rooted mainly in his fears about winding up alone. In the four decades since Company opened, however, the national culture largely has caught up with the show’s somewhat cynical, certainly cautious attitudes toward love and marriage.
Even during its original run, though, almost everyone agreed that Sondheim’s music and lyrics were dazzling, shot through with a wit and sophistication that came to be the composer-lyricist’s calling cards. It wasn’t just Sondheim’s audacious wordplay, which in one song rhymed “personable” with “coercin’ a bull.” It was also the way this music felt fresh and of-the-moment, reflecting the show’s New York setting. In “Another Hundred People,” an Act One number that quickly became my favorite song in the show, an electronic musical pulse deedle-de-deedles away repeatedly in the orchestra while a character sings about living in this “city of strangers,” where new faces are arriving 24/7:
Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
To the college freshman I was when the original cast recording of Company came out in 1970, this was a Broadway musical that sounded like no other, and it wasn’t long before I was schlepping that LP with its purple cover from door to door in my dorm like a deranged Jehovah’s Witness, urging my friends to take a listen.
Sondheim was only 40 when Company opened, with such masterworks as Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George ahead of him. He’s now 83, which explains in part why theater companies and producers are falling all over themselves these days to mount revivals and tributes to his brilliant body of work. This delightful but still surprisingly moving new Company from Great Performances gives us a welcome chance to look back to that moment in Sondheim’s career where everything started to come together in a thrilling way.