A Classic Sondheim Musical Gets a Thrilling Twist

Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped Company mines modern ambivalence about marriage.

Rosalie Craig stars as Bobbie in Marianne Elliott's updated production of Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. (Brinkhoff / Mogenburg)

Bobby, the urbane bachelor and possible beating heart of Company, usually comes in shades of gray. Dean Jones in a heavy tweed with a black turtleneck sweater. Raúl Esparza in an Armani suit that bags effortlessly around the elbows. Adrian Lester in a fitted jacket with wide lapels. Neil Patrick Harris in dark brushed suede over a pale-blue button-down.

Rosalie Craig wears scarlet. In Marianne Elliott’s new production of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical, Bobby (now Bobbie) is a woman, and her outfit radiates intention. Her hair is red. Her dress, her heels, her lipstick, her accessories: all red. On the stage of the Gielgud Theatre in London, she glows, cast into even more vibrant light by the heady neon tubes surrounding the set. It’s a wardrobe choice that takes Bobby, the elusive human chain mail weaving Company’s vignettes together, and pulls her, Bobbie, toward center stage.

Almost 50 years after Company debuted, with its series of featured solos about love and marriage at the tail end of the sexual revolution, its noncommittal central character has been reimagined as a happy bachelorette facing down 35 while her coupled-up friends fret on the sidelines. And in Elliott’s magnetic, rejuvenated production, Bobbie’s eternal question—“What do I get?”—rings with deeper resonance. There’s nothing suspicious about a 35-year-old bachelor anymore; the enduring question of Bobby’s sexuality, at this point, has been excavated more thoroughly than Petra. But an unmarried 35-year-old woman? What, people apparently still wonder, could be up with that?

Bobby’s paradoxical slipperiness as a character—he’s the center of his own story but also smoothly, maddeningly vacant—is at least partly due to the fact that Company, at its inception, wasn’t about him at all. The playwright and actor George Furth originally crafted the show at the suggestion of his therapist, writing a series of short plays as a showcase for the actress Kim Stanley. Sondheim and the director Harold Prince read the material and spied its potential as a musical mulling the subject of marriage, with a central character connecting the dots. Bobby, by definition, is a third wheel whose purpose is to throw his friends into greater states of dysfunction.

But Elliott, whose recent work includes War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the stunning reimagining of Angels in America, seems compelled to put Bobby’s own ambivalence at the core of her production. The fact that Bobbie is a woman, fittingly, changes nothing and everything—the show functions seamlessly, even with its dynamics upended. Elliott has reimagined it as a kind of 21st-century Lewis Carroll fever dream, with Bobbie falling through doors into the lives of her friends, each room stranger than the last. Bobbie’s perspective changes and distorts; on one occasion, she swigs from a miniature bottle of Jack Daniel’s that seems to return her to normal size. But the subtext is clear: She doesn’t fit into any of these different lives, just as her friends, gathered all together in her onstage kitchen, squeeze monstrously into the contained space.

Company has always been a strange show, beloved by a certain kind of musical-theater obsessive and perplexing to most others. In 1970, it was unheard of to have a musical without a clear chronological timeline, let alone one that (spoiler) leaves its protagonist single at the end of the story. The sharp pleasures it offers come in fleeting musical interludes: the mania of Amy’s pre-wedding jitters in “Getting Married Today,” the tap-dancing irony of “Side by Side by Side,” the crème de menthe–soaked self-hatred of “Ladies Who Lunch.” This Company, though, finds more of a narrative through line in Bobbie’s increasing sense of urgency to settle down, communicated in one scene by the loud ticking of a clock whose significance can’t be obscured.

The show begins with Bobbie’s 35th birthday and returns to it over and over. Each time Elliott revisits the scene, something has changed: The silver Mylar balloons spelling out Bobbie’s age grow terrifyingly large, pushing her out of her tight home space, or they shrink to a tiny size, making Bobbie herself seem bigger. Bunny Christie’s set frames each room almost like an Instagram picture, giving Bobbie’s interactions with her friends a distinctly modern feeling of artificiality. Bobbie tumbles first into the living room of Sarah (the former Great British Baking Show host Mel Giedroyc) and Harry (Gavin Spokes), then onto the terrace of Susan (Daisy Maywood) and Peter (Ashley Campbell), and finally onto a stoop with Jenny (Jennifer Saayeng) and David (Richard Henders). Each couple has its own issues: physical tension, controlling behavior, an inexplicable and impending divorce.

For Bobbie, whose three concurrent lovers (now men) pop up to taunt her, barbershop quartet–style, about her inability to commit to any of them, the subject of marriage seems to be imposed by her biology. The question isn’t why she wouldn’t yoke herself permanently to the dim-but-chiseled flight attendant Andy (Richard Fleeshman), the unbearably pretentious hipster PJ (George Blagden), or the small-town dreamer Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young)—it’s why she would. PJ’s solo, “Another Hundred People,” about the endless parades of new arrivals looking for love in Manhattan, adds modern texture to the show: “I’ll call you in the morning or I’ll text you to explain,” Blagden sings, with the song itself seeming like a neat fit for the age of Tinder.

Craig, too, fleshes out the central question mark of Bobbie with a performance that’s more human, more sympathetic, and more self-contained than Bobbys of yore. She’s less predatory in her seduction of Andy, less flirtatious in her interactions with the husbands who haunt her bedroom (literally) during “Poor Baby.” But like past Bobbys, she recedes into the background when she’s supposed to, rendering the supporting characters in sharper relief. The panicked bride-to-be once known as Amy is now a bridegroom named Jamie (Jonathan Bailey), whose impending nuptials to Paul (Alex Gaumond) toward the end of the first act throw Jamie into a spectacular meltdown. When Jamie spits Sondheim’s lyrics about prehistoric rituals and meaningless accumulation of dinnerware, the number is charged by the relative newness of gay marriage. But it’s also as delightful as it’s ever been, as Bailey works himself up into a state of sweating, fevered, preposterous hysterics.

The second half of Company belongs mostly to Patti LuPone, who reprises the role of Joanne, which she played in the New York Philharmonic’s limited 2011 production. LuPone’s Joanne is as vodka-addled, bitter, and furious as the role demands, but her dynamic with Bobbie is altered by their newfound sisterhood. Joanne still stings in her skewering of nonworking women (few pleasures in life measure up to seeing LuPone sing “Ladies Who Lunch”), but she’s almost maternal toward Bobbie, protecting her rather than swooping in on the prey that a male Bobby represents to Joanne. Craig is mostly passive in this scene, giving space to LuPone to dominate the stage even as Bobbie begins to question her own desires with new intensity.

Because what do you get, really? The most maddening thing about Company is that it shows you (Bobby) all the flaws and faults in marriage and then tells you (Bobby) that it’s the answer anyway, simply because not being married is worse. It’s a conclusion that even Sondheim seems to struggle with (he once said that the only time he was convinced by “Being Alive,” Bobby’s final number about wanting connection, was when it was sung by a gay actor, David Carroll, which seems to hint at the song’s ambivalence). Craig emotes her heart out during “Being Alive,” yearning for “someone to make you come through / who’ll always be there / as frightened as you.” And yet Elliott’s thrilling, gorgeous production seems to have other ideas. There’s peace, Bobbie finds, in quiet. There’s freedom in finding your own space, your own path, your own “parallel line,” as Sondheim puts it in “Side by Side by Side.” The fact that a director can find so much new resonance in a 48-year-old work just by inverting the gender of an unmarried character points to both the richness of Company and the complexity of a culture that still can’t agree on what women should actually want.