‘Lovable’ is not a word often used in connection with the work of Stephen Sondheim. In fact the prevailing critical view seems to be that entertainment value is hardly worth mentioning. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way to cut through the steely detachment that some of the great composer’s admirers have developed than by sitting them down with this joyous concert production of Company, recorded stateside last year with a star cast, and the mighty musical backing of the New York Philharmonic.
First staged in 1970, it is remarkable how little the work has dated. The piece unfolds as a non-linear series of vignettes featuring 35-year old bachelor Robert, his friends and his lovers. Librettist George Furth’s rejection of a conventional narrative structure helps it avoid the pervading sense of stodginess which can dominate revivals of classic book musicals. In fact, performed by an ensemble which comprises several performers who are actors rather than vocalists by trade, Furth’s relentlessly witty dialogue receives, deservedly, attention equal to that paid to the score. Stephen Colbert gives a scene-stealing performance as the alcoholic Harry, whilst Christina Hendricks’s April provides one of the evening’s funniest highlights in an extended monologue; the utter inconsequentiality of which is matched only by the hilarious sincerity with which it is delivered.
This is not to say that the music takes a back seat; the presence of a clutch of Broadway regulars ensures that. Katie Finneran scales the tongue-twisting heights of scatter-brained Amy’s Getting Married Today at full tempo, and Anika Noni Rose manages to get through Another Hundred People, a musical love-letter to New York, without sounding dissonantly screechy, as so many before her have. But the roof-raising pinnacle of the evening comes with Patti LuPone’s sublime delivery of The Ladies Who Lunch, in which every syllable drips with a heady and incomparably articulated mixture of contempt, self-loathing and brazen panache. As her final note rings out across the auditorium, vodka stinger raised high and orchestra swelling behind her, there is no doubt that Sondheim’s music is worth honouring with broadcasts such as this.
Interestingly however, though Lonny Price understandably pitches his direction towards celebrating the joy of the show, he doesn’t completely shy away from the darker undertones which can be found here. Neil Patrick Harris’s Robert is a man who understands the thrall he has over his friends, and uses them to fend off loneliness just as they rely on him to provide a supportive third wheel in their less-than-perfect marriages. He clearly enjoys their adulation; leading them around the stage in the opening number with a beckoning finger, and even calling for an encore of the classic Side By Side By Side, a brassy ode to the triangular relationships he thrives and hides in. The re-instatement of Tick Tock, a dance number rarely seen since the premiere nearly forty years ago, further highlights Bobby’s demons – the trail of romantic misery he leaves in his commitment-phobic wake is represented by a quartet of old flames whose execution of the choreography manages to be both sensuous and aggrieved.
Crucially, all of this is done with the lightest of touches – as much as necessary to satisfy aficionados looking for something beneath the melodies, but not enough to overcomplicate things for first-time viewers. And whether you’ve picked up on Robert’s foibles or not, Harris’s emotional epiphany in the climatic Being Alive is powerful enough to fulfil anyone’s expectations – where some of his first act numbers are a little whiny and vocally strained, this makes for a fittingly strong finale.
As the cast took their bows, it was hard not to feel disappointed that this screening marked a one-night only occasion; there are many more moments than can be mentioned here which deserve more exposure than a single showing. Perhaps in that respect the screening was attempting to acknowledge the nature of live theatre: ephemeral and fleeting. Nevertheless, given that the chances of this cast reuniting for a fully-staged theatrical run seem immensely unlikely, we ought to hope for a DVD release – there is no doubt this production would prove to be good company for a long time yet.