BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
With wit and neurotic comedy, Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” stirred things up when it premiered on Broadway in 1970 following an out-of-town tryout right here at Boston’s Shubert Theatre.
Lacking a linear storyline, it was one of the first “concept” musicals. Written as a series of vignettes focusing on the reality of adult relationships, the show appears to have no chronological order. And unlike many traditional musicals, it steers clear of delivering up a tidy “happily-ever-after” ending.
Despite that, the original production was nominated for a record-setting 14 Tony Awards. Over time, it has become one of Sondheim’s most popular titles, most recently revived by the New York Philharmonic and starring Neil Patrick Harris for PBS’s “Great Performances” series.
As the critic Michael White has pointed out, “Company” “demands to be done – because the text is so sharp and the songs so engaging.”
Among those who agree are the folks at Moonbox Productions, which will present “Company” in the Calderwood Pavilion at The Boston Center for the Arts, from Feb. 7 to March 1. The production itself marks a milestone for Moonbox. After four acclaimed seasons, the production team is excited to be staging its first musical. Included in the ensemble cast is one of Boston’s favorite leading ladies, Leigh Barrett.
In “Company,” Bobby, the lead character, is a young, single New Yorker who happily drifts in and out of casual relationships. He’s about to celebrate his 35th birthday, which triggers reflection. He has yet to make a commitment in life, and his colorful, complicated circle of married, no-longer-married, and soon-to-be-married friends would like him to find someone, anyone – for better or for worse.
The show originally grew from a series of short one-act plays written by George Furth. It was the legendary producer-director Hal Prince who suggested they be molded into a musical.
Sondheim, in conversation with James Lipton for “Inside The Actors Studio,” remembered, “In each playlet there were two people in a relationship and a third person who often acted as a catalyst. We realized that what the show should be about is the third person. So we invented the character of Bobby, the outsider in five different marriages. We realized that there could be no plot in the conventional sense. A man comes home on his 35th birthday and realizes that all his friends are married; he’s an outsider. And he has a combination breakdown and epiphany. The show really takes place in one second. His friends are there but they’re not there, and they don’t know each other, but they do know each other. They’re all fragments of his consciousness.”
Among the friends surrounding Bobby is the acerbic and always outspoken Joanne, played by Barrett. Boozy, cynical, and older than the rest of Bobby’s contemporaries, Joanne is on her third husband. Barrett, who has done several Sondheim shows in Boston, including “Follies,” “Passion” and “Gypsy,” is up for the challenge.
“Sondheim is the master,” she said recently before a rehearsal. “He’s the Shakespeare of musical theater. I’ve done a lot of Sondheim but I’m always discovering new and interesting things. He writes for the thinking actor.”
And what of her character’s lack of boundaries, brutally saying exactly what she thinks? “It’s definitely the first time I’ve played a character who, I think, purposefully makes people uncomfortable. And she likes it . . . it’s a survival mechanism for her.”
Of Joanne’s edgy, take-no-prisoners, vodka stinger personality, she said, “She just goes there. She’s not afraid of it. Me, I don’t ever want to hurt somebody’s feelings. I’m very careful with the edit button, with what I choose to say. She isn’t at all. Alcohol kind of drives her bus and gives her some liquid guts. And I think she thinks she’s kind of doing people a favor. ‘It’s something you already know. I’m just saying it out loud.’ ”
Barrett laughed as she described the first day of rehearsal. “I’m new to Moonbox, and a lot of the people in the cast have worked with everybody before. So they were all kind of sitting together. And I came in and the only chair left was sort of on the outside of everything. And I sat there and I thought, this is very appropriate for Joanne.”
When the show originated in the 70s, marriage and relationships were viewed in the light of a different generation. Yet the show continues to find new audiences today.
“It’s this little puzzle,” she explained. “I’m envisioning a Rubik’s Cube . . . every time you turn it, you discover something else. You turn it another way and it leads you to a different place. I think that might be why [the show endures]. There’s always something to discover. It has a sort of a Brechtian feel so that the audience or the actor or the director can put their own thing on it. I venture to say that’s probably part of the intrigue in rediscovering it each time. Plus each new generation has their idea of what Bobby is and what Bobby wants.”
Barrett acknowledged that Sondheim is also known for his musical complexity. “I said on my Facebook post that Sondheim is the musical equivalent of Sudoku. I don’t know Sondheim’s take on math, but I assume he must be a mathematical genius to make certain things work the way they do.”
Of “Company’s” rhythmically driven opening choral number, she said, “It’s like, chew gum, pat your head, rub your tummy, tap dance, jump rope, and flip pancakes all at the same time. You can’t listen to anybody next to you. You can’t count on that, because they have their own struggle with whatever’s going on musically and rhythmically.”
As Joanne, Barrett gets to sing the solo, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” one of Sondheim’s most biting anthems, a condemnation of vapid, rich women who squander their time on mindless trivialities. The song was delivered in the original production by Elaine Stritch.
“No pressure?” I asked. “No,” she said. “We talked about that. I’ve played a couple of roles that are iconically attached to someone else, I‘m me, so all I can do is be me. I won’t imitate somebody else. [In casting], they saw what they wanted and what their director was going for. And I can only go with what’s in my brain and my heart. So that’s what I’m looking to bring to it.”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Company,” Feb. 7-March 1, from Moonbox Productions at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston. Tickets: 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.