Stephen Sondheim’s death on Friday morning — an unexpected loss to the people in his life and to musical theater — attaches a new significance to the third Broadway revival of 1970’s Company. The musical, which marked the beginning of Sondheim’s decade-long collaboration with director Hal Prince, is now the last production that Broadway’s most revered composer-lyricist of the past 50 years directly worked on.
The opening was originally scheduled for March 22, 2020, Sondheim’s 90th birthday, then rescheduled to Dec. 9, 2021. “I think It will be a mixed night,” director Marianne Elliott told me outside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Friday. “Obviously there will be sadness, but also we’re just so full of blessings because we really do feel extremely honored to have worked with him, to have been so much a part of the last production [of his] he saw.” (Sondheim attended the musical on Nov. 15, its first preview since the Broadway shutdown.)
Elliott told the standing-room-only audience at the Jacobs that Sondheim could’ve easily rested on his laurels (the Presidential Medal of Freedom, nine Tony Awards, one Pulitzer, a Kennedy Center honor and many others) and withheld approval of the conceit of the production: to change the protagonist from a man (Bobby) to a woman (Bobbie, played by Katrina Lenk) who resists emotional commitments as their 35th birthday approaches.
“He didn’t need to do that but he became the greatest enthusiast for it and every single line of [book writer] George Furth and every single lyric we talked about, we debated, we argued, we chatted, we laughed,” Elliott told the audience, some of whom were hearing of Sondheim’s death for the first time. “He was hugely involved in this particular production and very proud of it, I’m so happy to say.”
She added: “He really understood about art and he really understood about the now and why art should speak to the now. It’s not a museum piece. It’s about speaking to its audience, its ephemeral audience, every single night of every single day of the year that makes it relevant.”
The cast largely held it together at Friday night’s performance, although Christopher Fitzgerald, appearing in at least his third major Sondheim production, seemed overcome in his first bars of “Sorry-Grateful.” (“You’re always sorry/You’re always grateful/You hold her, thinking: ‘I’m not alone’/You’re still alone.”)
While the changes to the lyrics are mostly limited to pronouns, this production, with a female lead and a gay couple as supporting characters, has a more contemporary and comic vibe than previous versions I’ve seen.
The circumstances surrounding the revival call to mind one of Sondheim’s proteges, Jonathan Larson, whose autobiographical work Tick, Tick …Boom! has been released by Netflix in an adaptation directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Sondheim is a pivotal character, played by Bradley Whitford.)
Larson tragically died in 1996, at 35, just before the first preview of Rent off Broadway. It ran 12 years on Broadway. That’s an impossible goal for any musical revival that isn’t Chicago, particularly for Company, a show that still registers as experimental 51 years after its debut. The prior Broadway revival, starring Raul Esparza and directed by John Doyle, opened exactly 15 years ago and ran just over seven months.
Sondheim is hardly the unknown that Larson was when his groundbreaking work opened off and on Broadway posthumously. Quite the opposite. Still, as with Rent, Company in revival on Broadway will now bear the stamp of an artist who gave everything of himself to the musical theater but was denied the pleasure of seeing the show open, the final fruit of his labors of love.