Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1995
Company's back on Broadway in a 25th anniversary revival
What other reviewers have to say about Company
Dean Jones, the original Bobby, recalls the bittersweet experience
Charles Kimbrough and Barbara Barrie remember Harry and Sarah
Elaine Stritch will always be remembered for "The Ladies Who Lunch"
Donna McKechnie on "Tick Tock"
"Being Alive" is a Sondheim "decision song"
Growing up with Company
News and Notes
For Your Amusement
By John Olson
After Company opened, observers noted Stephen Sondheim's similarity to the show's hero, Robert, a single man who has actively and successfully avoided marriage. But whether Sondheim's personal life was the inspiration for Robert, his professional life eventually came to display Robert's inability to commit to a single partner.
While Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, finished his career in an 18-year partnership with Richard Rodgers, Sondheim made the decision to work with a stable of regular collaborators.
This decision gave him the flexibility to explore a range of subject matter and literary styles in choosing his projects. His shows with Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) are romantic costume dramas based on European sources. John Weidman (Pacific Overtures, Assassins) writes historical librettos with political themes. The collaborations with James Lapine are set in distant locations like 19th century Europe (Sunday in the Park with George, Passion) or even imaginary ones (the fairy-tale land of Into the Woods).
But the two musicals he's written with George Furth stay close-sometimes perilously close-to home. Company and Merrily We Roll Along are two of the four shows he has set in contemporary times. (The others are Anyone Can Whistle, written with Arthur Laurents, and Follies, with James Goldman.) Their contemporary settings help to directly force audiences to acknowledge and confront the themes these musicals present.
The characters in Company and Merrily We Roll Along look too much like ourselves and the people we know for us to disregard or rationalize the questions the shows ask of us. It's obvious that the characters and milieus are drawn from the life experiences of their two authors as well. This shared experience may be the source of the common sensibility and tone that gives their shows a seamless integration of libretto and lyrics. More than Sondheim's other partnerships, his collaborations with George Furth seem to be the work of two parallel minds who met. And this quality may have been just the ingredient that gave Sondheim his breakthrough show, Company.
In 1969, Sondheim had not yet achieved the status that he would ultimately attain. He had spent much of the late '60s working on an ambitious musical called The Girls Upstairs, which ultimately became Follies, a critical success that did indeed further his reputation as a serious composer/lyricist for the theater. But a funny thing happened on the way to Follies. Early in 1969, his friend George Furth, a successful comic character actor, asked him to look at a series of one-act plays he had written. Sondheim passed them on to producer-director Harold Prince, who read the scripts and surprised Sondheim and Furth by suggesting they make them into a musical. He even asked Sondheim to put aside The Girls Upstairs to work on this new project first and promised him that he'd stage it after the Sondheim/Furth musical was produced.
Sondheim and Furth worked quickly, and in April 1970, Company opened on Broadway. It received enthusiastic notices and a record 15 Tony nominations, winning six of them as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Sondheim finally received acclaim as a composer as well as a lyricist and for the first time gained recognition as a major force in the musical theatre.
In Merrily We Roll Along, the second Sondheim/Furth musical, the central character, composer Franklin Shepard, advises an aspiring writer. "Don't just write what you know," Franklin says as he points to his head. Instead, he encourages the youth to "write what you know," pointing to his heart.
While Sondheim has denied that any of his work is autobiographical, it is evident that Company's milieu of young professionals in New York must have been familiar territory for him and Furth. The two were in their late thirties when they wrote Company. Sondheim was virtually a life-long New Yorker. Furth was a Chicagoan who had attended graduate school at Columbia and worked as an actor in New York before moving to California. So even if Company's theme of the challenges of achieving and maintaining committed relationships in contemporary urban America was not something Sondheim knew with his heart, he must have at least recognized Furth's characters from his own experience-probably better than he understood the middle-aged characters in Follies.
Sondheim and Furth's decision to present a hard-edged, unromantic depiction of romantic relationships was in itself revolutionary for the Broadway musical stage, and it unsettled many of its audiences. It challenged the traditional musical comedy plot lines in which characters want, need and deserve a loving , committed partnership, and find one with a person from a dramatically different background.
Company tells us that differences between lovers are often incredibly hard and painful to manage, and it goes even further, to show how some people, like Robert, may not be prepared for or even want a committed, loving relationship. Married or single, no adult theatergoer can avoid facing the issues that Company raises. While other Broadway musicals of the era depicted contemporary life in New York (Promises, Promises; Seesaw; How Now, Dow Jones), none challenged this central ethos of the art form as did Company.
Sondheim wrote music for Company that sounded like New York more than it sounded like other show tunes, and he almost entirely departed from the pastiches that permeated Whistle and Follies. In Company, his rhythms evoke the chaos of urban life. Much of his music for Follies and Whistle sounds like he was writing what he knew with his head-as the dutiful, talented student of musical theatre that he was. With the Company score, he appears to be writing what he knows with his heart.
Verbally, Sondheim and Furth create vivid pictures of young New Yorkers who want it all in their personal lives and relationships. Their common perceptiveness is enhanced by their ability to match each other's wordplay as they illustrate the inherent contradictions that the characters perceive in their lives.
Examples are found in some of Sondheim's best-known lyrics. In "Side by Side by Side," Robert notes that he's "the kid as well as the sitter," and that he and his married friends are "parallel lines who meet." The married couples are "Sorry-grateful/regretful-happy" that they're married, although some day they may have the opportunity to "get a divorce together." In another line from "The Little Things You Do Together," Joanne says that "it's not so hard to be married. I've done it three or four times."
Furth has as much fun as Sondheim in creating these oxymorons. In Act Two, Robert helps Susan and Peter celebrate their divorce-a particularly joyous event because they continue to live together with their children as a happy nuclear family. Susan explains to Robert the advantages of being single again.
"It's nicer, I think. Especially when you have somebody."
When Amy and Paul are running late for their own wedding, Paul tells Amy that "if we hurry, we'll be late ." Amy's fear of marriage is allayed by the fact that it won't be a Catholic ceremony. She says, "That way, when we get a divorce I won't be a sinner."
The desire for "parallel lines who meet" summarizes the point of the show. It's impossible. There's really no way to reconcile the need for partnership with the need for independence.
Beyond the similarity of their wordplay, the compatibility of Sondheim's lyrics and Furth's dialogue is evident in the way they contribute equally to the development of the show's characters. While years of listening to the cast album has given indelible pictures of Amy and Joanne, we may forget how much Furth's dialogue helps to create these personalities. Amy, of course, is the manic woman who's "not getting married today." She sings of her:
Wedding, what's a wedding? It's a prehistoric ritual where
Later, in Furth's dialogue, she says:
AMY: I'm so crazy I left the refrigerator door open last night, so the orange juice is hot. (Hands Paul his juice.) Here, and if you say "thank you" I will go running right out of this apartment and move into the Hopeless Cases Section at Bellevue, where they'll understand me. Don't talk, please. (Suddenly, from behind his chair, she throws her arms around his neck and kisses him all over his head, finally pressing her face against his). Oh, Paul, I apologize, you say whatever you want to say. Whatever you like. Who am I telling you what to do? Oh, Paul.
PAUL: That's okay.
AMY: I can't stand it! IT'S NOT OKAY, PAUL. NOTHING ABOUT IT EVEN REMOTELY RESEMBLES OKAY. IT IS THE OPPOSITE OF OKAY. Oh, Robert, this is the real me. Crazed!
Joanne's toast to "The Ladies Who Lunch" is legendary, including such dry lyrics as the following:
Here's to the girls who play wife-
Words like this could only be spoken by the same woman who describes an ex-husband as "so difficult to remember. Even when you're with him." Her opinion of her current husband is apparently not much higher. In the opening scene of the show, she introduces herself to another party guest, and says that she'd introduce her husband, "but I forgot his name." In fairness, though, she's not much easier on herself. When Robert is ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, she explains:
I know all the rules for birthday-candle blowing out. I've had enough for a wax museum.
Sondheim admits that he sometimes uses lines of dialogue for his lyrics, so this may explain some of the similarities in tone and style between the writing of the two partners. Then again, Furth has shown himself to be a skilled lyricist in his new one-woman musical Off The Record, so maybe he's made some uncredited contributions to Sondheim's lyrics. Whatever the reasons, the libretto and lyrics sound like the work of the same writer, and this quality helps to make Company the tightly focused show that it is.
Sondheim has said he and Furth wanted the audience to scream their heads off with laughter and then go home and be unable to sleep. If they succeeded in these goals, it was because they were writing what they knew, and what we knew, too. If it hits too close to home for some people, it provides insight into real life issues for others, in a way that few Broadway musicals have.
The protagonists of Merrily We Roll Along are successful show business professionals and it's a little harder to see ourselves in them. Yet, we can recognize some similar experiences. Maybe we've stayed in jobs we don't like, just for the money. Said "yes" when we meant "no" too many times. Or lost contact with the friends of our youth who helped us define our personalities and values. Like Company, Merrily We Roll Along asks us some tough questions about our life decisions.
Merrily's characters and settings may be further than Company's from the audience's experience, but they are clearly close to the life events of the writers. Furth changed the central characters of the original 1934 Kaufman and Hart play from a playwright and a painter into a composer and a librettist who write musical comedies together. He further establishes the similarities between his characters and Sondheim and himself by making the librettist a native of Chicago and graduate of Columbia University. The theater in which their first Broadway hit is produced is the Alvin, home of Company as well as Merrily We Roll Along.
Like the original source material, the action of the story is told in reverse chronology. As the play begins, we see how the lives of Sondheim and Furth might have turned out, if they had used their talents to greater commercial advantage instead of insisting on challenging their audiences with important ideas. The composer Franklin Shepard and the librettist Charley Kringas have made some creative choices and compromises that fortunately Sondheim and Furth chose not to make. We see that Franklin became successful first by agreeing to write more "hummable melodies," and then leaving composing altogether to produce commercially successful, but artistically void, movies. We're asked to imagine a world without Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George or Into the Woods, but with more sequels to Rocky and Die Hard. Yikes!
Ironically, the show does contain some of Sondheim's most hummable melodies, and it's widely considered to be his most accessible score. Again, the subject matter-in this case two friends who write Broadway musicals-dictated the musical style of the show.
The verbal similarity between Sondheim's lyrics and Furth's dialogue is again present, but maybe not as obvious as it is in Company. Company is a series of character sketches, each with a similar point of view . Merrily is a traditional book musical, and it places different demands on the writing that send Furth and Sondheim to different places throughout the show. Sondheim's songs include show numbers written by Franklin and Charley, some songs that provide plot exposition and others that amplify the emotions of characters that they would probably not express in dialogue. Furth's book provides the plot details of some 20 years in the characters' lives.
We see the common experiences and sensibilities of Sondheim and Furth primarily in their keen depiction of show business language and details, and in their development of librettist Charley and their novelist friend Mary Flynn. Franklin, the composer, is inarticulate-whenever he opens his mouth some banality like "She is the raft that keeps me from drowning" or "the worst vice is advice" usually comes out. In fact, he almost doesn't sing, except when with Charley and Mary. His one solo, "Growing Up," shows his ability to rationalize and deceive himself with the use of euphemisms like "being flexible, bending with the road," when he really means compromising.
Mary and Charley are writers, though, and they give Sondheim and Furth the chance to have some verbal fun as they did with the characters in Company. They have a particularly good time with Mary, who has a habit of taking other people's cliched conversation and turning it into unexpected meanings. In the first party scene Ru asks Mary:
Ru: So what do you do?
Mary: I drink.
Ru: No, what do you really do?
Mary: I really drink.
When Franklin explains that he and Mary "go way back," she adds, "but seldom forward," not only a comment on the lack of growth in their friendship but also an inside joke on the narrative structure of the show as well. When Franklin asks Mary if she has "lost a little weight," she replies, "About 180 pounds. He still calls, though."
Verbally, Mary keeps taking people places they don't expect to go. Ru boasts to Mary that he wrote the screenplay for Franklin's latest horrible movie, and she answers, "Your secret's safe with me." Commenting on the intrigues underway at the party, she notes how "the plot thins."
Sondheim's lyrics for Mary in "That Frank" show the same ability to take the listener down one road, and then take a sharp, unexpected turn to somewhere else. Singing about the guests at Frank's party, she says:
These are the movers, these are the shapers
And in "Now You Know," she makes the unexpected point that "you should burn (your bridges) every now and then," turning around the conventional wisdom that burning bridges is a bad thing. Similarly, she advises Frank that "bricks can tumble from clear blue skies," and that "people love you and tell you lies."
Charley sometimes plays the same verbal trick. When a TV talk show host asks him, "What comes first, the words or the music?" he replies, "Generally the contract." Sondheim's lyrics for "Franklin Shepard, Inc." have Charley explain that Franklin "makes a ton of money, and a lot of it for me."
Mary and Charley's jaded view of life is reflected in their use of language. It's a verbal style that runs through the show and reinforces its central theme-that our adult lives are often very different from the ones we anticipated in our youth. Similarly, Company uses its lyrics and dialogue to underscore its characters' tendency to hold conflicting desires and want it all-intimacy and partnership as well as independence. Sondheim and Furth's ability to adopt a common verbal style and use it to express ideas that are clearly very close to their hearts and experiences shows that they truly are parallel minds who met.
The Sondheim/Furth collaborations are now receiving renewed attention, with the 1994 York Theater revival of Merrily, the 1995 Roundabout Theater revival of Company, and the current San Diego production of their new nonmusical murder mystery, The Doctor Is Out. Merrily has finally become available for amateur productions, and community theaters, even high schools, are performing it.
In the final, rooftop scene of Merrily We Roll Along, Franklin tells Charley:
"Musicals are popular. They're a great way to state important ideas. Ideas that could make a difference. Charley, we can change the world."
A few moments later, in the lyrics of "Our Time," Charley and Frank vow to tell their audiences "things they don't know." Not a bad, nor unattainable objective for an art form.
And happily, an objective shared by Mssrs. Sondheim and Furth.
John Olson is an advertising executive and Sondheim enthusiast in Milwaukee, Wis.
All lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
"Getting Married Today," "The Ladies Who Lunch." (c) 1970 Range Road Music, Inc., Quartet Music, Inc. @ Rilting Music, Inc.
"That Frank," (c) 1981 Rilting Music, Inc..
All rights administered by WB Music Corp.
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
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