KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 12, 2000
Everybody loves a little company…but too much company can wear you down. And so it is with the Stephen Sondheim musical. The groundbreaking, Tony Award-winning “Company” was one of the first concept musicals, a show that revolves around a theme, not a plot, and in this case, one that it circles back on itself innumerable times. If you like happy endings, upbeat musicals, singable songs and an actual story-line, perhaps this isn’t the show for you. But if you’re middle-aged, married, and more than a tad cynical, the SDSU production of the 1970 musical may get you right in the sagging gut.
“Company” dissects marriage, eviscerating it and laying it bare, as Bobby, a 35 year-old bachelor, visits and observes all his unblissfully wedded friends, all of whom want nothing more than for him to get hitched, too. Bobby, however, seems terrified of commitment. On the larger scale, the piece is all about life in the Big City (New York, that is) with all its isolation and fear of intimacy. Sondheim himself has been accused of similarly alienating effects, and this show perpetuates that conception, discouraging emotional involvement because the songs comment on, rather than grow out of, the separate scenes.
From the relationship standpoint, nothing has changed, and yet, the play still seems staunchly grounded in the ’70s, a time of free love, disco-dancing, and experimenting with pot. Most of the attempted updates by director Paula Kalustian seem anachronistic — like cellphones and Prozac. But setting the bouncy, colorful second act opener, “Side By Side By Side,” in a gym on treadmills was nothing short of a stroke of genius.
The word genius is often applied to composer/librettist Sondheim, but it depends on your point of view and your penchant for musicals. His songs are unquestionably difficult to sing, as is made all too clear at times in this production. The musical theater MFA students at SDSU, though enormously talented and energetic, often couldn’t master those rat-a-tat tempos and tongue-twisting lyrics, especially in the supposed showstoppers, “Getting Married Today” and “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
You may not care about these characters, but you may certainly recognize them and their relationships. So why not make it a Sondheim Saturday? In conjunction with “Company,” and in honor of the composer’s 70th birthday, SDSU is holding a celebrational Sondheim Symposium tomorrow, before the evening’s performance. The man has been an undeniable force in the American musical theater, but with all his acidity, atonality and caustic wit, you may want to sing one of his famously acerbic songs right back at him….
SONG: “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.