This week PBS brought us a concert version of Sondheim’s Company. While I am always glad to see Broadway musicals on television, I am afraid that this one was a misfire. Not that the audience at Avery Fisher Hall didn’t enjoy it; they lapped it up. The play is a favorite of high schools, colleges, and community theaters, partly because it is easy to stage, partly because the material has a gloss of sophistication that is appealing to many.
Company has never been one of my Sondheim favorites. The problem is the book, by George Furth. The story line, if you don’t know, is bookended between two scenes of a surprise birthday party for Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor surrounded by married couples who are (1) trapped in a state of marital warfare and (2) preoccupied with Bobby’s singleness. Bobby also has a few girlfriends who float in and out of the play. The problem with the book is its shallowness, disguised by a lot of snappy one-liners, some funny, some not. Sample: One of Bobby’s girlfriends says, “He’s from New York; he’s not interested in anything.” The audience, made up of people presumably from New York, roared with laughter.
The music is brittle and the lyrics are very clever, both characteristics typical of Sondheim’s work. One can imagine that the composer/lyricist was right at home with Furth’s book, for Sondheim is the master of nihilism, and nihilism is overflowing in Company. The orchestra, a slimmed down New York Philharmonic conducted by Broadway old-hand Paul Gemignani, was fine. It was highly visible on stage, as is the custom in concert productions.
Bobby, in Furth’s book, is essentially a straight man for the husbands and wives and girlfriends who surround him. A successful performance, therefore, depends entirely on the ability of Bobby to be a sympathetic character whom one cares about. That brings me to the second weakness of the PBS production: the cast. Bobby was played by Neil Patrick Harris, a television actor who has some talent (on display when he emceed the Tony Awards) but not the presence that makes you really care – or understand why his married friends care two hoots if he gets married or not.
The supporting cast was also made up of people who owe their celebrity mostly to television - Stephen Colbert from the Comedy Channel, Christina Hendricks from Mad Men, etc. The only one with Broadway bona fides was Patti LuPone. It’s not that television is inherently inferior to the legitimate stage, but someone who has acted on Broadway for years has a way of moving and talking that sets him or her apart – as Patti LuPone amply demonstrated in this production. Colbert was solid, and Hendricks was very good, but neither they nor others had to demonstrate the talents usually associated with musical theater. And Neil Patrick Harris lacked the voice that might have offset his lack of personal magnetism. Harris’s voice was especially inadequate in Bobby’s closing song of redemption, “Being Alive.”
But, all that notwithstanding, we should rejoice that any Broadway musical – even a weak one like this – makes it into our living rooms. Now we can wait, with great anticipation, for Oklahoma!, starring a young Hugh Jackman, which will be shown on Great Performances on November 15. This one, probably inspired by the fact that it has been 70 years since the landmark musical opened on Broadway, is not to be missed.