Friday, January 8, 2016

1970's Company, 2016's Crowd

A lot of directors think they can improve, or, god forbid, "fix" Company. They are almost invariably wrong. Ann Arbor Civic Theater's current production was, disappointingly, no exception.

If you aren't familiar with the plot of Company, here is the synopsis Sondheim offers in his book Finishing The Hat: "A man with no emotional commitments reassess his life on his thirty-fifth birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends. That is the entire plot."

Obviously a full-length two-act musical has to be a bit more than that, and it is. Company is a series of individual scenes, some with lines loosely drawn between them, some completely independent, of one man, Robert, Bobby, Rob-o, and other nicknames, hanging out and talking with his various friends and girlfriends. It was the first true "concept" musical, that is to say, a musical about ideas rather than about a story, and most modern American musicals owe something to Company. Company's "concept", as summarized by Sondheim, is "the challenge of maintaining relationships in a society becoming increasingly depersonalized."

Sounds like a story (well, series of vignettes) for the internet age, with social media pulling people apart and dating apps reducing relationships to a skeleton, right? Well, Company premiered in 1970, and it shows its age. But as xkcd so wonderfully compiles, this sort of thing is not strictly a modern issue. And so even though the show is a little stuck in the past, it has aged well. The reason it ages well is because while the specific details of the show are very sixties, the overlying issues are ones that persist in every generation, and not only that, they're the sorts of issues that everyone thinks only pertains to their generation. Company deals a lot with the perpetual generation gap, and in acknowledging that said gap is perpetual, the show is made timeless.

But apparently that's not good enough, as the central conceit of Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production is a time setting update, putting the show into the modern age. This included a number of updates to the dialogue to account for modern technology and slang. But the update not only fails to make the show any more accessible (frankly I never thought it was inaccessible in the first place), but also introduces several conspicuous incongruities with parts of the show which are very clearly a product of its time. Case in point: smart phones were present on stage, but no references were made to dating apps.

First, let's get the elephant out of the room. The most conspicuous edit, and the one which seemed to garner the greatest response from the audience. Kathy is now Kevin. Robert's three girlfriends are now two girlfriends and a boyfriend. Which completely ruins the Andrews Sisters pastiche when they all sing You Could Drive A Person Crazy, but I guess that's beside the point. What is the point is that it greatly confuses the later dialogue in Act II between Peter and Robert in which they discuss homosexuality, as well as the free-love dynamic of the sixties. This is one of the scenes that pretty clearly dates the show, and having early shown Robert with a boyfriend (who, rather incongruously with his actual character, dresses in the stereotypical flamboyant manner, sparkly earrings, scarf, shiny leather pants), confuses the matter. For example, in said scene with Peter, Robert denies being gay, but admits to having had at least one homosexual experience. Earlier, we saw that Kevin is one of two people in the show Robert actually expresses an interest in marrying (we'll come to Amy later). That doesn't sound like the sort of fling Peter and Robert are discussing. And Peter's conversation about the upcoming generation just further cements the fact that Peter is a character from half a century ago, and Kevin is from the present day. And where does that leave Robert?

This is just one of the major issues, and several other similar confusions pop up on analysis. Ultimately, the fact is that there was absolutely no reason for the director to swap the gender of the character except for the sheer sake of presenting a gay relationship on stage. You want to do that, go ahead, and mount a production of Road Show, or Kiss Of The Spider Woman, or Fun Home, or If/Then, or Rent, or I could go on. But don't change such a firmly grounded musical as Company for the sheer sake of changing it.

There was another gender swap in the production, of Paul to Paula. Surprisingly, when Amy brings up the fact that she's catholic, they did not update the dialogue to refer to the fact that she's getting married to another woman, and only indicates the usual "catholic rebellion" in the script of her spouse-to-be being a Jew. This gender swap was somewhat less conspicuous, but there was a little confusion in the moment after Amy calls off the wedding and then Robert proposes to her. On the other hand, this drew more attention to the fact that he doesn't want to marry Amy, but simply wants to marry. On the other hand, in the original version of Company, which ended with the song Multitudes Of Amys, Robert was convinced in the end that Amy was the right girl for him all along, and some remaining hints of the are in the final product. Robert's performance of Marry Me A Little (and, frankly, most of his numbers) was far to cheerful.

I do have to give Amy credit for a wonderfully enunciated performance of Getting Married Today, especially with all the extra syllables that came in with having to sing "Paula" instead of "Paul" -- which happens a lot. And "which he should" is difficult enough to patter clearly without adding the extra letter to make it "which she should". The first choir girl line in the song was Jenny's. I mean, it goes to whatever soprano you have in the cast, but I was a little disappointed that Susan didn't get a solo, as without doubling as the choir girl, her actress doesn't get one. The second choir girl line, however, was sung by Joanne. This is mildly clever given the content of the line, but given that Joanne sang it in a completely straight soprano, and the lighting and stage setup made it impossible to tell it was her anyway, this was a rather wasted modification.

Paula was the source of a great deal of vocal imbalance. Aside from Paul's lines being written for a specifically male voice type (Paula's voices sounded like it should have been good, but it was not write for the part for the simple reason that the part was written for a tenor or tenor-ish voice), Sondheim wrote the ensemble numbers for five men and five women, and Paula, instead of singing the Paul part with the men, was placed with the women. The score contains a lot of harmonies and a lot of layering, and so the difference between four and five men in a song like Have I Got A Girl For You is extremely noticeable. Other similar issues pervaded. At points with odd or dissonant harmonies, some of the wrong tones overpowered and rendered the whole thing exceedingly strange. And not all of the cast could maintain their notes. Several were rather flat throughout.

The score was re-orchestrated for a tiny ensemble of four. Piano, drums, trumpet, and bass. Now Sondheim writes notorious dense scores, and so of course some of the inner complexity of the score was bound to be lost, but that just means you have to make more out of what you do have. Not that you should take the most basic form of the vamp and then play jazzy trumpet riffs over it. I think the only time the trumpet was playing a part that resembled something in the original score might have been in What Would We Do Without you?

At the beginning of Act II, I thought Side By Side By Side and What Would We Do Without You? might redeem the production, but then came the dance moment. In this moment of the number, Robert's various married friends each do a little call-and-response dance with their partner, and when it comes to Robert's turn, he does his dance move, and then there's a loud silence in which no one responds. In the 2006 revival directed by John Doyle, the performers all played instruments -- they were the show's orchestra -- and they played call-and-response solos, with Robert only blasting a short kazoo note. The Ann Arbor Civic Theater production had no correlation between who did the call dance move and who did the response, and Robert completed his own dance without a break, ruining the entire crux of the song. A similar issue was at the end of Barcelona, when Robert's final "oh god" was not a pained punchline, but rather an enthusiastic response to April getting back into bed with him -- and sticking her head directly under the sheets. Which is the complete opposite of the point of the song. More punchlines were ruined throughout, such as the whole string of them throughout The Little Things. During Joanne's singing, Harry and Sarah were still very visible on stage wrestling in a comic manner which distracted from the song. Almost none of the jokes in what is quite possibly the most entertaining song in the show landed.

A lot of the songs completely lost their dramatic arc. The score of Company thrives on contrasts, but the orchestration got rid of all that and made it sound bland and uniform, rich only in superfluous jazzy trumpet riffs that have no place in the score. I recommend listening to Another Hundred People and then watching Seth Rudetsky's analysis, which points out a lot of the contrasts (and also a lot of the stuff that keeps the show in 1970). Note that this production got rid of the "some go away" and its corresponding ritardando in favor of a straight reprise of "the ones who stay". Note the very blatant shift in the tone of the orchestration once she starts in on "can find each other in the crowded streets". The song becomes immediately ten times brighter, but not for Ann Arbor Civic Theater, which kept its one-tone orchestration with way too much trumpet riffing throughout. Not to mention driving drum lines which turn songs like Someone Is Waiting into jazz numbers.

Interjection here to say that Jonathan Tunick deserves so much credit for his amazing original orchestration not only of Company, but of Follies, A Little Night Music, Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd, basically all of Sondheim's shows except Sunday In The Park With George, for which so much credit should go to Michael Starobin.

I really wanted to like Marta. Marta is my favorite character in the piece. I think that might say something about me, but I'm not sure what. Maybe it's just my New York roots poking through. Unfortunately, the soprano's voice (she had to be a soprano to replace Kevin on the top lines of You Could Drive A Person Crazy) was not suited to Another Hundred People, and sounded especially odd coming out of an emo-punk-whatever attire -- although for setting Company in the present, such attire was a good choice for Marta's character. But the entire production lent itself to being flat. It was in a small thrust theater with a sparse set. I initially thought that this would be a good setting for Company, as in theory a sparse set could be come ten different places at the whim of a good director, and a small thrust theater could engage the audience by placing them physically close to and among the performers. But the production never had a sense of where it wanted to be, and it therefore felt at a lot of times like a rehearsal rather than a performance. I feel comfortable getting up in arms about this, because the 2006 revival, available on Netflix, had minimal set that still conveyed all the necessary locations, and the Lincoln Center production with Neil Patrick Harris, available on video, had literally no set (it was a concert), but still with costumes and a handful of props and couches succeeded in making clear every location. This production had neither the size nor the inventiveness to ground the show. The apartments were apartments, but the club in the penultimate scene had no feeling of being a club. Same with what I suppose was probably a club in Marta's scene (in the final strain of Another Hundred People she grabbed a microphone and acted as if she were performing in front of people before stepping down to where Robert was elsewhere on the set). But at least April took advantage of the thrust to indicate the audience as if we were furniture in Robert's apartment. Leaning on the fourth wall always helps sometimes.

Overall, the acting was a great deal better than the singing, and the singing often wasn't acted enough, making it feel more like a concert than a musical. I cannot understand why the husbands should be singing Have I Got A Girl For You to the audience rather than to Robert, who's instead standing twenty feet behind them. Maybe for Follies.

I had other minor gripes with individual performances. Harry was good, but seemed too young (his costume did not help). April was good, but delivered the butterfly monologue too quickly, leaving no space for the punchline. Actually, pacing was just off throughout. The things that were good but just a little off add up, but they all seem trivial compared with the mess that was the direction. But it's not all bad. What remains intact of George Furth's dialogue is exceedingly witty, and at least the normal moment of catharsis at the end is mostly intact.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this production. Watch the video of the 2006 revival or the NY  Philharmonic concert. Both have their advantages and flaws, which I would be happy to list, but their flaws come out of directorial choices which, if I don't have a preference for them, I at least understand. I respect John Doyle's idea of having the cast be the orchestra, and I understand what it lends to the show in addition to what problems it introduces. But Ann Arbor Civic Theater's attempt to place the show in the present day does nothing but detract, and other poor directorial choices destroy the points of many individual moments. And Company, as a series of scenes built on a theme, is all about those individual moments.

I am a millennial. I don't entirely "get" Company. I'm most certainly to young to "get" all of it. I imagine that the amount of it which I "get" will gradually increase over the years. But I recognize that I don't "get" all of it, and I still recognize it as a great and an important musical. I have never found it inaccessible. I never lived in the sixties and seventies. I haven't experienced the era those characters have. But that has never alienated me from the show, and why should it? We don't expect that the entire audience of Oklahoma! to have shared in the experiences of cowboys and farmers at the turn of the century. We don't expect people seeing West Side Story to have had gang experience. So why should Company being set almost half a century ago when it was written be any sort of road block in understanding and appreciating it? I am sorry to say that Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production suffers from what Sondheim so eloquently summarizes as "directors who think they know how to improve plays, and dramaturges who know everything about plays and nothing about playwriting." He goes on to say that "these directors are just as cocooned as the academics; in their serenity they think they know how to fix the Little Shows That Couldn't, and they relentlessly do so, cutting and rearranging with great pride. It makes them feel creative, as if they were writers. A lot of unwitting audiences have gone home from these evenings misled into thinking that what they've seen is the work of the authors whose names are printed in the program."

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