Last fall, a very strange revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company opened on Broadway. Director John Doyle staged the show with the great Raul Esparza in the lead role of Robert; there was nothing unusual or bold about this, as Esparza is one of the most talented actors to hit Broadway in years. it was the rest of the cast that made news. All the other roles were staffed by actors and singers who also made up the orchestra by playing instruments. This approach was not exactly new, as Doyle had just used it for a revival of Sweeney Todd. But by all accounts, it worked a lot better in Company, which is a small personal show instead of a Grand Guignol/Brechtian epic opera.
This soundtrack album cannot really recreate the effect of seeing the show live, but no soundtrack album really can. It does, however, prove a few things. First of all, it shows that an innovative approach like this can make for a vital listening experience. The small-orchestra feel is perfectly pitched for the intimacy of this show, which focuses on a New York bachelor who is re-assessing his single-guy lifestyle in light of the relationships of his married friends. The sound is flawless and the musicians acquit themselves very well, even when called on to turn a flute into a telephone answering machine beep.
This record also shows that actors who play instruments can also sing the hell out of some songs. Angel Desai burns it up on “Another Hundred People”, and Elizabeth Mitchell is crystalline in her duet with Esparza on “Barcelona”. Barbara Walsh’s version of that modern chestnut “The Ladies Who Lunch” might actually rival the classic Elaine Stritch reading.
But it is pretty clear that Esparza is equal to carrying this show on his own back. He is strong in the role of a weak man, a nice enough guy who is also a womanizing solipsist. He interacts perfectly with the rest of the singers, even in songs like “Company” and “Side by Side by Side”, which require some of the most difficult timing ever attempted onstage. And when he gets to solo, he shines very brightly: “Someone Is Waiting” is intense and beautiful, and the big weepy showstopper “Being Alive” manages to make more emotional sense than I’ve ever heard on record before. Please, can everyone just give him all the big Broadway male roles from now until he’s 99 years old?
Ultimately, though, the best thing about this disc is that it reminds us of the absolute genius of Stephen Sondheim. Sure, he’s an all-star—but isn’t it time to just admit that he might be the greatest songwriter in American history? I mean, there’s always Smokey Robinson and George Gershwin and Erykah Badu and Duke Ellington and Cindy Walker and a lot of other people… but damn, people, Stephen Sondheim! There’s plenty of room on this bandwagon. Jump aboard and let’s all sing “Marry Me a Little” together.