Sondheim’s COMPANY flips the conversation on marriage and independence
The gender-swapped 2018 revival of a classical Broadway musical performed in New Haven’s Shubert Theater during its national tour.
Courtesy of Shubert Theater
Playing at the Shubert Theater from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, the national tour of COMPANY performed a reframing of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical. Sondheim, whose prolific career earned eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, an Olivier Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has seen a resurgence on Broadway after his death in 2021.
Lights fade in the theater and, from offstage, a Manhattan cacophony begins: police sirens, a ringing landline, and a jangling ring of keys. It is Bobbie’s birthday, and with balloons in each hand spelling the number “35,” she must celebrate by considering what it means to be happy in life and marriage, accompanied by the reminder of passing time.
The revival retains the musical and narrative integrity of the original composition, but rewrites the central character for a female performer, interweaving sentiments of independence and domestic choices into a gendered conversation.
“It is a story about life. She is trying to find her way, and we know she will,” Barbara and Louis said, beaming from their mezzanine seats.
Through a series of vignettes, the musical follows Bobbie — played by Britney Coleman — an unmarried and childless woman celebrating her 35th birthday in the company of close friends. Married, engaged, divorcing or parenting, each character presents a path that Bobbie’s life has not yet taken. This deviation from a traditional plot structure invites audiences to experience the well-meant, albeit unsolicited offers of advice, alongside Bobbie.
The show’s complexity and demand of audience members to reflect upon their own experiences, through the intersection of individual plotlines, is a trademark of Sondheim’s work.
Daniel Egan, the coordinator of the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater at Yale and professor of American musical theater history, has focused on the works of Stephen Sondheim throughout his academic and professional careers. During his graduate studies at Yale, Egan developed the first seminar discussing Sondheim’s productions.
“The attraction for me has always been the combination of psychological acuity and compositional finesse. Like many people, I find the emotional truth and resonance of Sondheim’s characters to be clear, arresting and human,” Egan said.
For Coleman, who celebrated her 35th birthday one week before arriving to perform in New Haven, this resonance and relatability are at the forefront of the production’s impact.
Specifically speaking to the revival’s play with gender dynamics, Coleman reflected on the relationship between her character and her personal life.
“The gender swap calls to mind a lot of the double standards that we have about men being expected to settle down versus women being expected to settle down, especially at the age of 35, when there’s a biological factor in there,” Coleman said. “A woman who doesn’t have children turning 35 has some things going on in the back of her mind. Should I settle down?”
David Socolar, who plays Theo, one of Bobbie’s passing love interests, explained that the conversation sparked by the revival is not forced, however. He said that the show’s impact comes from its narrative’s existence, not a blatant effort to make a statement.
Whether the audience came as season ticket holders, Sondheim aficionados, holiday gifters or — for members Melanie and Bobby — to watch swing actor Elysia Jordan perform as Bobbie’s body double, each left feeling a connection to the characters.
This seemingly inherent trait of Sondheim compositions also brought COMPANY to Shubert’s stage. The process of selecting a season of productions is complex; board members at the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts, or CAPA, must consider what shows are offered in a given period, when each show is visiting the region, whether competing venues have presented a show and if a show has been offered in the venue’s recent lineups.
CAPA, which both owns and manages the Shubert Theater, must also balance the preferences of current season ticket holders with opportunities to expand their subscriber base.
Anthony Lupinacci, the Director of Advertising and Community Relations of the Shubert Theater explains that COMPANY’s classic musical theater elements that lean into current social complexities navigate the space between veteran and prospective season ticket holders.
Professor Egan agreed, speaking to COMPANY’s timelessness.
“I might focus on the work’s risk-taking structure (for 1970, when it was written) and its continued resonance today. I would also emphasize that these works — like any good works of art — are porous and open to investigation and interpretation across eras,” Egan wrote to the News. “A traditional production of a Sondheim show can move and enlighten us, but so can a reimagined production of a so-called classic, like Company.”
The national tour of COMPANY will travel to five cities before returning to New England, performing in Boston’s Citizens Bank Opera House from April 2 to April 14, 2024. The Citizens Bank Opera House is located at 539 Washington St., Boston, MA.