Does Bobby Need to Be Openly Gay in Stephen Sondheim’s Revised ‘Company’?

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Yesterday afternoon it was revealed that Stephen Sondheim (along with director John Tiffany) has reworked his classic musical comedy, Company, with a major plot twist: Bobby, the central, single character, who spends the course of the show dealing with his own inability to commit, is gay. Several of the female characters in the show will be men, including Joanne, the middle-aged woman whose character delivers the show’s most famous song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s an interesting revision, as critics have long argued that Bobby was a closeted homosexual in the first place. But 43 years after the musical premiered on Broadway, is a revisionist’s take on Company necessary?

Company‘s indelible influence on modern musical theatre is impossible to miss: told through nonlinear vignettes, the show weaves a very loose plot around Bobby, celebrating his 35th birthday, and his group of friends: several married couples, as well as a few female paramours who openly express their frustration with his obsession with his own bachelor status. There’s not much in the text that suggests Bobby is gay, although people have certainly wondered: why else couldn’t a handsome single man settle down? That Sondheim and book writer George Furth were both in the closet only adds to the speculative reading. But beyond Bobby’s singlehood, Company paints a comically cynical portrait of marriage. The couples fight (verbally and physically), they get cold feet before their weddings, sometimes they divorce. Marriage, through the eyes of Sondheim and Furth, is as uncomfortable and infuriating as the single life, and with friends like these, it’s not shocking that Bobby could be turned off by the possibility of matrimony.

Yet the show’s supposed late-’60s / early-’70s setting gives the reading a little more context: the fact that someone could go so late into his life without getting hitched indicated much deeper of an emotional problem than it does today. Marriage meant something different then, as Sondheim noted to The New York Times yesterday:

“It’s still a musical about commitment, but marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970,” Mr. Sondheim said. “We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way.”

Perhaps that’s why Sondheim is on board with this openly gay production — which will see a reading at Roundabout Theater Company this week, featuring Daniel Evans, Bobby Steggert, Michael Urie, and Alan Cumming, who will deliver Joanne’s famous 11 o’clock number. It’s promising that this Company will be actually reworked to comment, possibly, on the gay experience; while marriage is an option, it’s not the only option, and generations of men who were told it was not a possibility have surely seen their social and romantic sensibilities affected by what mainstream society saw as the norm. And a musical about that would be great! But why Company, and why now?

To be homosexual surely meant something different in 1970 than it does today, too, which critic James Jorden pointed out when he reviewed the New York Philharmonic’s all-star staging of the musical in 2011 (Neil Patrick Harris starred as Bobby) for Capital New York. When discussing a major lyrical change in the song “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” sung by Bobby’s three jilted lovers — “I could understand a person if a person was a fag” turned into “I could understand a person if he happened to be gay” when Roundabout revived the show in 1995 — Jorden suggests that Bobby, who very well might be homosexual, wouldn’t be seen as such because of the many layers of stigma attached to being queer:

Back in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that some men had sex with other men occasionally, and other men maybe fantasized from time to time about same-sex action, but none of these guys were what you would call homosexual. They were just normal guys with different tastes. A homosexual, on the other hand, was seen as a completely different breed, a “boy in the band” hairdresser or an interior designer or an opera queen with some sort of twisted secret desire to be a woman, or at least to be treated like a woman by some big, butch (preferably working-class) straight dude. That kind of homosexual was a “fag,” a camp joke, and a woman chasing after such a creature was obviously ridiculous, because, in the words of an early Sondheim lyric, “his trousers [are] vermilion…. his friends call him Lillian.” That’s the joke: Robert’s obviously not a fag, because he’s attractive and conventionally masculine. But the revision “happened to be gay” isn’t really a joke because it’s non-judgmental. The idea here is, yes, some guys who don’t appear effeminate do turn out to be gay sometimes, not that there’s anything wrong with that. A quarter century of enlightenment reveals that gay sexuality is somewhat more complex than we first thought.

To place Company in a more modern context, then, with openly gay characters dealing with their commitment issues, seems to take away from what makes the show so nuanced and complicated: now we have a new reason for Bobby’s fear of commitment, and it proves that the heterosexual models for coupling no longer shape his view of marriage. It’s true that Company is dated as hell; it’s still entertaining, but a lot of the meat is stale. Once a major influential text, it seems to no longer deliver the thematic impact it once gave us in terms of depicting interpersonal relationships on stage. Could this be an effort to give the show more relevancy to modern audiences? It seems an odd move, and one that makes the show more exclusive. After all, Bobby’s possible queerness never turned gay audiences away from the show before.