A Memorable Staging of a Sondheim Musical: ‘Stephen Sondheim’s Company’

Nothing says “New York” quite like Company, a musical and dramatic examination of modern manners in the big city circa 1970, with a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Company broke new ground in multiple ways: it focused on the lives of adults, consisted of a series of short scenes focused on a general theme (hence the designation “concept musical”), and didn’t end with the clearcut resolution typical of most musicals of the time. Apparently Broadway was ready for something new, however, because Company proved to be the right show at the right time, receiving nominations for 14 Tony Awards, and winning six, including Best Musical, Best Original Music, and Best Direction (Harold Prince).

The first production of Company ran for 705 performances, and the show was and is a critical darling, but since that original production it’s been something of a tough sell on the Broadway stage. The much-acclaimed 2006-2007 revival ran for only 246 performances, and grossed about half its potential in ticket sales. And yet the music is so great, and the characterizations so rich, that it’s a show that begs to be done regularly.

If Company may never become a staple of the Broadway repertoire, it has found a natural home in another type of production: the short-run concert performance. This DVD presents a celebrated 2011 concert version performed with an all-star cast and backed up by the New York Philharmonic, and although there were only four live performances, the show was also shown in about 500 theatres around the country. This type of distribution has also brought Metropolitan Opera and London National Theatre performances to people who could never have gotten to a live production, and I applaud its extension to Broadway performances (something similar was tried with the Broadway Theatre Archive in the ’70s, and that effort preserved many performances that would otherwise have fallen by the wayside).

This is the third DVD release of Company, and to my mind it’s the best. The first is a 1970 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker capturing the process of recording the original cast album, and while it’s a fine film in its own right (and there’s a side drama with Elaine Stritch that has to be seen to be believed), it’s not a recording of a performance of the show. The second DVD release presents the 2006 Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle and renowned for its severe minimalism. The palette of this production is dominated by dark blues and blacks, while the set consists primarily of clear plastic cubes that more than one critic has commented resemble blocks of ice. It’s also notable because the cast members played instruments as well as singing, an idea Doyle also used in a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Overall, the Doyle production is an interesting take on the show, but a bit severe for my taste, as if the primary goal was to spend as little as possible on anything other than the cast.

Although the 2011 production of Company featured on this DVD is a concert performance, it feels complete in a way that the performances on the other two DVDs do not. It helps that Company resembles a song cycle more than a traditional book musical, and that all the singers are off book (quite an achievement, considering they had only 12 days of rehearsal). It also helps that a generous portion of the stage has been carved out for their performance, and that an ingenious collection of mostly rolling furniture makes every scene feel completely staged. But the real kicker is the “pit orchestra” (they’re actually on stage) made up of 35 members of the New York Philharmonic and directed by Paul Gemignani. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations have never sounded better, and there just no substitute for the richness of sound you get with a real orchestra, which shows Sondheim’s music off at its best.

The casting for this performance of Company takes some chances, but it all turned out for the best. Theatre veterans like Neil Patrick Harris (Bobby), Martha Plimpton (Sarah), Katie Finneran (Amy), and of course Patti LuPone (Joanne) are obvious choices for this show (and if anyone can make you forget Elaine Stritch’s performance of Joanne, it’s Patti LuPone). On the other hand, casting Stephen Colbert (Harry) and Christina Hendricks (April) is a bit more of a stretch, but both came through in great style. In fact, the dramatic performances are a great strength of this particular production, while the singing is not always at the same level.

The only extras are a song index on the DVD, and a four-page booklet of program notes written by director Lonny Price. Both are nice to have, but what you’re paying for with this DVD is the recorded performance itself—and if you’re a Sondheim fan, that’s more than enough.

RATING 8 / 10