Sondheim will soon be in many headlines because one of his musicals (“Into the Woods”) is being remade as a movie with Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep as horribly miscast Big Wolf and wicked witch. I say horribly miscast because those two just can’t sing professionally (in my opinion – other’s disagree and you are also welcome to do so, e.g. comment section) and there is no one who can convince me otherwise and the fact that this will be the second Sondheim-musical-movie-remake that Depp ruins with his ghastly singing (he already played the main character in “Sweeney Todd”) is doubly frustrating.
Anyways, apart from those funny and very cynical fantasy pieces, Sondheim created an amazingly sombre musical in the late 60s which was performed first in 1970. “Company” is about “Bobby” on his 35th birthday when his friends throw a surprise party for him. While they wait, he considers his life choices in the romantic department which are…debatable. Always pressured by his friends to get a nice girl but at the same time seeing that his friends have not necessarily ideal relationships, Bobby tries to come to terms with his own wishes. There are theories that he was originally written to be a closeted gay – which is an interesting spin – but even that twist doesn’t deter from the actual message that something like love can not be forced and that no one wants to settle, no one wants to fool around for the rest of their life and no one wants to be alone but that at the same time, the ideal relationship comes with a lot of baggage. Oh, but it’s also a very biting social satire that doesn’t tread lightly on all the great variations of chaotic, horrible, loveless and love-riddled relationships.
In the Broadway revival from 2006/2007, which was choreographed and directed by John Doyle, the actors and actresses are also the orchestra and carry instruments around, like small indicators of their true selves within the play. It’s quite brilliant on stage even if it sounds ridiculous in theory. The real gem is the fact that although it’s a musical, it’s being played like a…erm…play. The acting is superbly subtle and the chemistry between Bobby and the rest of the cast is magical. I gotta admit that most of the musicals I know are super flashy and loud and glitzy, so it caught me by surprise how “naked” this adaption seems and how effective it is emotionally. Plus, Raúl Esparza – yes, the one musical star I talked about only recently – is absolutely amazing with his portrayal of someone who pretends – for a very long time – to be happy.
The new version (2011) – which featured Neil Patrick Harris as “Bobby” – was equally minimalistic (not musically, though) but as much as I love NPH, his musical delivery was more towards the theatrical which doesn’t suit this particular musical and he was less detached and poised and had more of a nervous energy (for comedic effect, I guess) that somehow doesn’t fit the character very well.
So, here’s NPH, being fantastic as always. I have to say, the songs in this musical are absolutely gorgeous and the lyrics are usually above of what I am used to in musicals. Oh, and the cast of this version was just a double-whammy on big names. Stephen Colbert, is that you? And yes, apparently, Jon Cryer hasn’t given up on acting and actually acts when he is not forcing himself through the 100th season of “Two and a half bad jokes”. Oh, and Martha Plimpton – love her and you should too!
Damn. Right in the feels.
This is Raúl. He didn’t win the Tony that year…for some ridiculous reason (probably the Illuminati). I obviously prefer this version because it’s not so messy and loud. It takes its time to establish the scene and to explore the inner turmoil of Bobby and the background is not overwhelming the vocals. It’s astounding how Esparza manages to sing a song like this and still act as if he is not singing a song like this. There is no “musical” in this performance, if you know what I mean. He delivers all his songs with a sincerity that turns them into dramatic and comedic (given the song) dialogues. No wonder, vocally, he is well (damn well) above NPH which is a given because he’s a seasoned musical actor who can do classical (“Company”), modern (“Leap of Faith”) and even funny (Rocky Horror Picture Show”) musicals without blinking an eye.
I might be a little biased here, but I prefer musicals with fully trained singers (hence my on-going rage towards weird casting-choices in movie musicals) who have a wide range and a full voice and therefore can easily convey all the emotions through their singing because they don’t have to strain their voice so hard (something you can hear a little with NPH’s performance – I think he is a brilliant musical actor but not with music like this which is very classic, old-school and therefore vocally demanding). I mean, it looks and sounds so easy when Rául sings this song even though he goes through a myriad of emotions when it is actually one of those songs that can break singers/actors like twigs.
The sudden tenderness in the repeat of the first part alone is such a brilliant decision because it shows the exact moment in the song when Bobby finally realizes that all this pressure and fear of (emotional) intimacy is also something to live for and something to strive for. It’s such a lovely interpretation of the lyrics that so wonderfully change through the song.
I might prefer the 2007-version mainly because it is comedic but not so overt. 2011 is Doris Day and Rock Hudson and their hi-jinx whereas 2007 is more Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott (without the grunge-hair). It’s easier to be moved by John Doyle’s vision because the humor seems to come from real (and realistic) pain instead of sitcom-fodder and it’s something different for a musical which – as already mentioned – I truly love.
My favourite song of the whole play is “Marry me a little” because even though it wasn’t even in the original version of the musical and is placed halfway through the story, for me it’s the most desperate moment of Bobby. He just half-humorously proposed to a friend who is about to get married. It’s one of those spontaneous and reckless steps that someone takes who believes that they change everything. Of course, most can’t just go through with it because they know that it’s wrong and doesn’t help and instead would make things worse. There is such (comedic) sadness in this song that could just as well be a beautiful lovesong if it weren’t for those short lines that indicate that this relationship – whatever it is – can never be more than make-believe. Two people who care for each other but don’t love each other enough to be able to face the bad sides of each other or the demanding aspects of a relationship. It’s the wishful thinking and the fairy tale-ending and it is performed as such. Bobby knows that it is just a fluke and only lets himself dream for a few moments before he goes back to his…ahem…philandering ways – until the final which I already spoiled because “Being Alive” is actually the last song of the play.
Although – fun fact – it originally wasn’t and Sondheim wrote a song that was apparently too dark for the ending (haha, back then, people weren’t used to Joss Whedon-endings). As far as I can make out through the bad sound quality of this recording, it underlines the strains of relationships more than the advantages which would somehow fit the general mood of the musical itself. I don’t know if I prefer it because the feels, the onion-cutting ninjas and the melancholic sighs looking out of the window are missing from this one. Now, if only Rául would record this, just for comparison…
Sure, if you’re generally not into musicals, then “Company” might not convince you otherwise but it definitely might be able to convince anyone who so far only knew Andrew Lloyd Webber that it’s not just dancing cats and – sigh – trains.