The missing number in Sondheim’s ‘Company’

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Christina Hendricks and Neil Patrick Harris in 'Company.' ()
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It’s considered a compliment to declare a work of art to be greater than the sum of its parts. Even a musical with some very spectacular parts indeed (say, Ethel Merman, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins) can add up to a more towering masterpiece than expected when the magic that is Gypsy happens.

On the other hand, sometimes you can take elements that in themselves are paragons, blend with care, and somehow end up with a show that is merely excellent. That’s always how I feel when I watch a performance of the Sondheim/Furth musical Company, even the excitingly starry production presented by the New York Philharmonic over the weekend.

What prevents Company from being the greatest musical ever written (which, given the talents going into it, it certainly could have been) is that there is something central to the work that is false, a cheat. As the critic Julian Budden says about the gnarled revision of the libretto of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, “It is like one of those mathematical games where at one point the player takes away the number he first thought of.”

The game being played in Company is “why can’t Robert commit?” The central character is a symbolically 35-year-old (i.e., exactly in midlife) single man living in Manhattan about 1970. He dates various girls casually, but he spends most of his time with one or another of the married couples who all seem to welcome him as pleasant and useful third wheel.

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So why is Robert happier “side by side by side” instead of coupling? The show never offers an answer to the puzzle, because Sondheim and Furth have taken the number away: the nature of Robert’s sexuality.

Now, it’s true that nobody in the play has significant backstory. Each of the five couples Bobby knows is seen only briefly, in a clearly-defined comic situation. For example, Harry and Sarah, two addictive personalities, hope to cop a vicarious thrill by watching dinner guest Robert drink bourbon or eat a brownie. Their tense one-upmanship devolves into a karate match, with the comic payoff that Robert is literally caught in the middle of their (physical) squabbling. (This early scene in the New York Philharmonic version with Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton set such an impossibly high standard of comic timing, the rest of the show seemed a bit of a letdown.)

And Harry and Sarah don’t even get a song to resolve or expand on their marital tension: instead, tart-tongued neighbor Joanne and the rest of the couples comment on the scene, Brecht-Weill fashion, in “The Little Things You Do Together.” Shortly afterward, Harry gets the lovely ballad “Sorry/Grateful,” but, again, it’s a commentary on marriage in general, not a reflection on his specific emotional situation.

Shallow supporting characters are nothing new in musical theater: in fact, fact, a working definition of a theatrical vehicle might be “a play in which there’s only one interesting character.” So the shallowness of the multitude of supporting players might not be quite so grating if only someone (I’m looking at you, Robert) displayed some depth or development.

Yet Robert is, if anything, less substantive than the people surrounding him. Perhaps because the book of the show began life as a series of short plays to star Kim Stanley, the women take the lead in most of their scenes: Robert sits and listens and feeds an occasional “and what happened next” to whichever actress he’s playing opposite. One long speech, the story he tells dim April about the chick he lost in the motel, is a retelling of an urban legend: even his backstory is generic! The other, a drunken ramble, functions primarily to ratchet up the tension before Joanne’s eleven o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

Yes, Robert sings too, of course, but his numbers (except “Barcelona,” ) are all variations on the theme of what critic Ethan Mordden calls the “Wanting Song.” He might as well be singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” or “My White Knight” or “Wouldn't It be Loverly.” Even in “Being Alive,” Sondheim’s relatively upbeat and optimistic third attempt at a closer for Robert, the longing remains inchoate: he has only figured out he wants “someone,” and this is supposed to be a huge climactic breakthrough.

But don’t most people get that “someone” business figured out quite early on? Isn’t, in fact, the need for “someone” is so basic to Western popular culture that that every romantic comedy (and more than a few tragedies begins “boy meets girl?”

So what if it’s not a girl Robert needs to meet? What if it’s a guy?

This is not a new idea. In fact, from the time Company opened over 40 years ago, commentators have suggested that Robert is “supposed” to be gay. A few enterprising directors have even tried putting this idea explicitly onstage—only to be informed by Mr. Sondheim’s lawyers and Mr. Furth’s estate that, no, Robert is not gay, so stop it!

In fact, when Sondheim and Furth (both gay, and, by 1995, both out) revised the show in the mid-'90s, two significant changes they made had to do with squelching the suspicion that Robert is gay. One is the reinstatement of a scene that was cut from the 1970 book, in which recently divorced Peter suggestively chats up Robert on the subject of homosexual experiences (in so many words) and Robert admits he’s had more than one, then implicitly denies he’s gay by blowing off Peter’s apparent pass as a joke.

This scene notoriously falls flat in performance; at the Philharmonic, Craig Bierko as Peter looked like he’d rather be out with a bus and truck tour of Dance of the Vampires. But we’ll get back to that scene in a moment.

Earlier, Sondheim revises a lyric in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a comic number in which Robert’s three girlfriends bitch about his inability to commit. In 1970 the trio sang:

I could understand a person if it's not a person's bag
I could understand a person if a person was a fag.

But since 1995 they have sung:

I could understand a person if he said to go away
I could understand a person if he happened to be gay

Now, besides dissipating a bit of the verbal absurdity of “Crazy,” i.e., a 1940s song pastiche using crude 1970 slang, there’s a major shift in meaning here which, I think, has to do with our developing understanding of sexual orientation over the past few decades.

Back in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that some men had sex with other men occasionally, and other men maybe fantasized from time to time about same-sex action, but none of these guys were what you would call homosexual. They were just normal guys with different tastes. A homosexual, on the other hand, was seen as a completely different breed, a “boy in the band” hairdresser or an interior designer or an opera queen with some sort of twisted secret desire to be a woman, or at least to be treated like a woman by some big, butch (preferably working-class) straight dude.

That kind of homosexual was a “fag,” a camp joke, and a woman chasing after such a creature was obviously ridiculous, because, in the words of an early Sondheim lyric, “his trousers [are] vermilion…. his friends call him Lillian.” That’s the joke: Robert’s obviously not a fag, because he’s attractive and conventionally masculine.

But the revision “happened to be gay” isn’t really a joke because it’s non-judgmental. The idea here is, yes, some guys who don’t appear effeminate do turn out to be gay sometimes, not that there’s anything wrong with that. A quarter century of enlightenment reveals that gay sexuality is somewhat more complex than we first thought.

The problem is that Robert is a product of that unenlightened 1970 mindset, a fictional example of that apocryphal type of “guy who is cool enough to sleep with guys occasionally but really, fundamentally, is normal.” That restored scene for Robert and Peter is essentially a statement of this concept. Robert, we are assured, is straight even though he has sex with guys, whereas Peter, well… we’ll just have to wait and see, and in the meantime we can wonder about all that “fun” he was having down in Mexico before inviting Susan to join him.

I think Sondheim and Furth both bought into that “Robert” fiction because they didn’t see themselves as “fags.” They were (perhaps not consciously) writing a character who was a version of themselves: a smart, well-connected, unpartnered man about town. So they put themselves onstage, the thirty-something-year-old casual buddy (to men) and asexual pal (to women) that Robert ends up being in the show.

But what they left out was the essential trait of sexual orientation. That’s why Robert feels so incomplete and empty onstage, particularly when, as at the Philharmonic, the actor plays him as written. Neil Patrick Harris looked great, moved well, sang pleasantly if without plausible power for “Being Alive,” and found all the laughs. But he never convinced as the all-around popular guy Robert is supposed to be.

It’s not Harris’s fault: Robert’s appeal is not written into the show, or, rather, it’s never demonstrated in the show. Robert’s universal charm is an “informed attribute,” that is, the audience is supposed to accept that he’s well-liked because we are informed that he is well-liked. The whole point of the opening number is for everyone on stage to cry in unison “We love you!”

But of course, we never see Robert doing anything particularly likeable or charming. He’s too noncommittal for that. Later, we get a lyric about how the couples find Robert useful and therefore cherishable:

Who sends anniversary wishes?
Who helps with the dishes
And never says boo?
Who changes subjects on cue?
Who cheers us up when we're blue?
Who is a flirt, but never a threat,
Reminds us of our birthdays which we always forget?

And so forth. But let’s stop for just a moment on that line “Who is a flirt, but never a threat ….” In fact, this is exactly what Robert is, an attractive man who knows how to show a woman a good time, compliment her dress, gallantly pitch in with the after-dinner cleanup—but never, never make an unwelcome pass.

Now, there are exactly two types of men who can be trusted around another man’s wife, the utterly unimpeachably honorable gentleman, and the ... well, you know who the other kind is. Let’s just say that the husbands, who as an ensemble vicariously revel in Robert’s reported sexcapades, know very well that he’s no gentleman.

The unpartnered and closeted gay man, though, is a perfect third wheel for a restless married couple. For the husband, he’s an uncompetitive sidekick with maybe the occasional tale of wild debauchery to share; for the wife, he’s a nonthreatening asexual pal. And those are precisely the niches Robert fills in Company. So adept is he at playing a supporting role in his friends’ lives that he has never quite made the time for living his own.

So there we have it: Robert’s “problem” is not that he’s gay. Rather, it’s that he’s gay in a society where being gay means not having a fair chance at intimacy, if for no other reason that he himself doesn’t understand his sexuality. And it doesn’t matter if the people who created Robert protest: after all, when they wrote Company, they didn’t understand their own sexuality either.

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