Analyse

Company

Analyse littéraire de l'œuvre

Opening in April 1970, Company achieved a Broadway run of 690 performances, winning almost all Tony awards: best musical, director, designer, choreographer, author, lyricist-composer. It sent out a road company and later played in London. Aided by the brilliant choreography of Michael Bennett, by an exceptional cast, and by Boris Aronson's single, high-rise apartment setting complete with working elevators, the show was shaped essentially by three persons: George Furth, who wrote the book; Stephen Sondheim, who composed both music and lyrics; and Harold Prince, who directed the whole production.

George Furth, the youngest of the three (b. 1932), had written a script intended for production without songs. It portrayed eleven marriages and was planned for one actress, Kim Stanley, to play all the wives. Eventually, the script was rewritten for musical theater and became the basis of Company. Furth rarely wrote works for musicals, and several of the brash, brittle insights seemed appropriate only to the sophisticated playgoer—not for the typical visitor from out of town. “If you like New York Magazine,” said Clive Barnes, “you will probably love Company.”1

The second major force in the making of Company was its lyricist-composer, Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), older than Furth but younger than Prince. Beginning as a lyricist for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), Sondheim added his own music to his lyrics in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). It was a smash hit. His next venture, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), however, was a dismal failure. Sondheim then returned as lyricist to the music of Richard Rodgers in Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). Five years went by before Sondheim tried the musical field again. This time he met success—Company (1970)—and, although the production drew mixed reviews, every critic praised both the lyrics and the music.

The last member of the triumvirate, Harold Prince (b. 1928), came into the show with the best record of the three in musical theater—as producer and director. Beginning with The Pajama Game (1954) and ending in the sixties with Zorba (1969), Prince began his brilliant career as producer, finally turning to director, as well, with She Loves Me (1963). Almost every show he touched in the fifties and sixties turned to gold. Small wonder he is known as the “Prince” of Broadway. When Company opened the next decade, Harold Prince again received his share of applause from critics. “Harold Prince knows,” wrote Richard Watts, “how to stage a musical show.”2 The skill, slickness, and vitality of the production was, more often than not, attributed to the directing of Prince. Walter Kerr, who did not like the characters or their society, judged the work of Prince as “immaculate.”3

What bothered some opening-night critics centered mostly, as Walter Kerr summarized the following Sunday, on the characters and their life-style. “Go to a cocktail party before the show,” Clive Barnes advised, “and when you get to the theatre you can have masochistic fun in meeting all the lovely, beautiful people you had spent the previous two hours avoiding.”4 The affluent society consisted of people who were, in turn, “brassy, brittle, sympathetic,” John J. O'Connor wrote, completing the estimate, “cynical, romantic, calculating and alive—oh so very much alive.”5 Most opening-night critics did not see that the show was leading the way toward the future. Edwin Newman, on NBC, sensed something was different in the show: “The judgment is not clear-cut, but Company isn't either.”6

In this article we propose to look back on the show, to describe it as it was that opening night, and to analyze it in terms of musicals to come.

A brief overture—only twelve measures—opens the musical with the first of Sondheim's innovations. He uses a small vocal group, four women who are in the pit, as an “instrument” of the orchestra. The primary musical activity is a polyphonic setting of the four vocalists, accompanied by the other instruments of the orchestra.

The curtain opens to reveal “a multi-leveled steel structure indicating various high-rise Manhattan apartments.”7 Five empty living rooms are seen. “As the lights come up slowly, Robert's apartment slides in on stage level. The five couples are sitting at or standing around a dining-room table” (p. 3). Apparently, it is a surprise birthday party, since each wife is carrying a gift. Footsteps are heard, as well as a key in the lock. Robert enters and is surprised on his thirty-fifth birthday. The five couples, all of whom are married or are about to be married, enact the ritual of the American birthday party for their unmarried friend, Robert.

Centering on marriage, divorce, and friendship among the affluent, upper middle class in the United States, Company portrays a young bachelor, his married companions, and single girlfriends in episodes depicting their lives in the late sixties. All characters are in their twenties and early thirties, revealing sophistication, satirical wit, and New York worldliness. Their numerous jokes reflect bitterness, the emptiness of twosomes, and the integral part played by Robert in their world. In the course of the musical, we see Robert as the center of attention in the social circles of five couples and three girlfriends. They worry about him; they invite him into their activities; each pair becomes three. Their lives are fulfilled through him, and his life through them.

Those
Good and crazy people, my friends,
Those
Good and crazy people, my married friends!
And that's what it's all about, isn't it?
That's what it's really about,
Really about!
(pp. 13-14)

Two is a couple, three is company.

Musically, the title song is a continuation of the melodic material explored in the overture. Lyrically stating the interdependence of the characters, the first thirty-nine measures serve as the verse to an irregularly constructed thirty-two-measure chorus. This chorus is followed by a second verse of fifty-two measures, utilizing melodic material similar to the opening verse. The piece ends with a return to the chorus in an extended form of forty-eight measures.

This first piece readily shows Sondheim's innovative style. As a nontraditionalist he modifies many of the standard compositional rules of popular song. For example, the verse sections are unusually long and contain a conglomeration of melodic phrases that are repeated and interwoven. Breaking the traditional pattern of homophonic word setting, Sondheim borrows a technique from Leonard Bernstein by creating coincident and incongruous lyrical settings, sung either by the individual or by couples. The melodic material of the chorus is segmented, stressing the composer's aversion to needless repetition. While other composers have used repetition to make their melodies easy to remember, Sondheim makes his segments so distinct that this practice of repetition is unnecessary.

The scene ends in a cacophony of sound effects, imitating the sounds and “frantic pace of New York streets and lives” (p. 18). The company breaks up, as the couples dash off to their separate apartments, one wife even speaking of her children (p. 19). This clashing of sounds functions as scene-change music—another innovation.

Scene 2 opens in the living room belonging to Sarah and Harry. Robert is there, too, as the sole dinner guest. The scene develops as a threesome. Harry is trying to stop drinking; Sarah, eating. Each is unsuccessful, making the scene comic and—at the same time—representative of the losing battle to halt middle age. In their argument about dieting, Sarah and Harry move to a karate fight, in which Sarah, as usual, wins. The second time she jumps on him the music begins. Joanne enters to sing “The Little Things You Do Together,” as Robert, Harry, and Sarah “freeze in their positions” (p. 29).

Following the basic pattern of the thirty-two-measure song, this piece is another Sondheim modification. Joanne sings an A section of twelve measures. Breaking their freeze, the three participate in dialogue, the major part of which belongs to Sarah and Harry. They continue their karate struggle, which Sarah wins once more, even though Harry refuses to give in. The music begins after Harry's line, “Uncle, your ass!” (p. 31). They freeze again, and Joanne continues the song.

She sings the A′ section of ten measures, the B section of eight, and the A″ section of fourteen. Breaking the freeze, Robert says one line and finds himself in the karate fight. All three land on the floor and freeze, as the “other married couples enter and sing with JOANNE” (p. 32).

Instead of returning to the A section, they sing the C section of twelve measures, which acts as a substitute for A. This C section leads into A″, followed by B, and concluding with the A″ section extended to sixteen measures. Joanne leaves, together with the other couples (p. 33). Breaking their freeze at the same time, the three continue their dialogue. The leave-taking begins. When Sarah gives Robert “an affectionate peck on the cheek,” he says, “Wow” (p. 34), and the music of “Bobby Baby” underscores the action as Robert crosses to the other side of the stage “slowly, utterly bewildered” (p. 34). The music stops, and Robert observes a short scene between Sarah and Harry, both of whom are cheating on their diets. When Sarah leaves, Harry is stealing “a drink out of ROBERT'S old glass” (p. 35), as Robert from his side of the stage asks Harry: “You ever sorry you got married?” (p. 35). The music of “Sorry-Grateful” begins with Robert's question.

Basically constructed of one chorus, a repeat, and an ending, “Sorry-Grateful” consists of sixty-six measures. The chorus is divided as follows: A (6 mm.), A (6 mm.), B (4 mm.), A′ (10 mm.). The repeat is musically exact; the lyrics, however, differ, and the ending comprises twelve measures. A two-line dialogue between Sarah and Harry concludes the chorus. David appears in his apartment to sing the repeat of both A sections; Larry, in his apartment, sings the B section, whereas Larry, David, and Harry sing the A′ section. The ending is sung by Harry and Larry, while Harry alone sings the conclusion. As the repeat of A is sung by Harry, Sarah enters to mime the action of which he sings.

An underlying principle of composition is the rhythmic relationship of duple and triple meters. Like Bernstein in West Side Story, Sondheim capitalizes on this relationship in Company. “Sorry-Grateful” alternates metric divisions of 6/4 (a triple meter) and 4/4 (a duple meter). The main melodic material from the A section and its repeat consists chiefly of intervallic relations of seconds, thirds, and fifths. Sung by three characters, the song in its length (66 mm.) continues to reflect this effect, since its length is divisible by two and by three. Moreover, the number of characters on stage consists of two, three, and five, matching the struggle inherent in the music. Unlike Bernstein, who stresses the metric contrast through strong, pulsated rhythmic figures, Sondheim uses a more subtle technique of slower tempo, rhythmic passivity, and varying rhythmic sequences.

The three songs to this point in the show are characterized by several innovations, setting the pattern for the remainder. First, none is cast strictly in the traditional musical mode of a thirty-two measure chorus. In this light Sondheim's melodies seem to be more intellectually calculated, formulated, and structured than many popular songs, making it difficult to leave the theater humming the hit songs from the show.

Second, in performance the staging by Harold Prince ranges far and wide. The show begins in Robert's apartment for his surprise birthday party by the five married couples. Suddenly, in the midst of the title song, in troop three girlfriends, who sing with the couples. They are never identified, and their presence seems superimposed on the scene. The unusual formulation of this first scene continues throughout the show. The second song is treated similarly. In the middle of a realistic threesome, Joanne suddenly appears to sing “The Little Things.” The song becomes effectively a commentary on marriage. Her intrusion seems like an authorial explanatory footnote. The third song receives similar staging. Robert leaves but stands to observe the married couple cleaning up after the party. When Sarah exits, Robert, still in his position as observer, asks Harry, who is alone in his room, a pointed question. Harry's reply is contained in his paradoxical song, “Sorry-Grateful.” While he sings, Sarah enters and continues her cleaning, giving the impression she neither hears nor sees Harry. At the same time, Harry has become, like Robert, an observer, who comments upon Sarah's coming in, cleaning up, and leaving. It seems as if Harry is singing of his conflicting emotions to Robert, while Sarah is performing her wifely tasks. Suddenly, like the girlfriends in the first song and Joanne in the second, David is seen in his apartment, continuing the song that Harry begins. Larry—like David, the girlfriends, and Joanne—appears in his own apartment to continue the song. His intrusion is followed immediately by a trio: Harry, David, and Larry—the last two on the upper levels of the high-rise, Harry on the main level. The triangle—visually designed by Harold Prince—is complete. This trio is followed by a duet and is concluded by a solo.

Third, the lyrical component parallels the music and the staging in their respective accomplishments, becoming the thread that stitches the two together. In the tradition of other great composer-lyricists such as Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim draws upon his intellect, his wit, and his training by Oscar Hammerstein to create a new level of sophistication in musical lyrics.

It's the little things you do together,
Do together,
Do together,
That make perfect relationships.
The hobbies you pursue together,
Savings you accrue together,
Looks you misconstrue together
That make marriage a joy.
(p. 29)

Like Hart in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (Pal Joey), Sondheim in this lyric keeps the end rhyme consistent with the same word, “together,” and changes the word immediately preceding it for the rhyme: “pursue,” “accrue,” “misconstrue.” Subsequently, in the repeat of the chorus, he uses “share,” “swear,” and “wear”; “enjoy,” “annoy,” and “destroy”; “winks,” “drinks,” and “kinks”; and “shop,” “stop,” and “swap” (p. 31). By contrast, in the piece “Sorry-Grateful” Sondheim omits, by and large, the internal and end rhyme scheme and substitutes a front rhyme scheme, beginning three lines with “You're always” and three lines with “And still” (p. 35). In the title song, sung first in the show, he uses “Bobby” repeatedly; this device stresses the deep need of the couples and girlfriends for Robert: he is used by all and, in turn, uses them. The repetition of sounds, e.g., “Bobby,” “Bobby baby,” “Bobby bubi” (p. 9), employs alliteration and assonance to emphasize the importance of Robert in their lives. He becomes, in effect, an object to be loved, cared for, and worried about.

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company!
No strings, good times, just chums, company!
.....That's what it's really about, isn't it?
That's what it's really about, really about!
(pp. 18-19)

Robert finds the couples and his girlfriends as necessary to him as he is to them. Like the other innovations, Sondheim's lyrics are his own and do not follow the traditional patterns.

Moreover, the three songs cut to the center of the musical. They reflect the city, its affluent inhabitants, and high-rise apartments. All the characters try to find some meaning in their lives, in keeping with the intellectual questioning of the late sixties. They find strength in the group and challenge the traditional view of marriage as the be-all and end-all of living. Some of the couples, for example, have children whom we never see and about whom we seldom hear. The focus in their lives, as the title song declares, is Robert. These three songs lead us to the central question: What is to become of Robert?

In the third scene, for example, Peter and Susan request Robert's presence for the announcement of their forthcoming divorce. In the following scene Robert is asked in by Jenny and David for a “pot” party, where Robert discovers that Jenny “does it” only for David. It is in this scene that Robert's three girlfriends suddenly enter to sing the number “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” The wives also enter for a reprise of “Bobby Baby,” and after they exit the husbands appear for their song, “Have I Got a Girl for You.” Robert ends the scene alone with the song “Someone Is Waiting.”

In the fifth scene Robert sits on a park bench and is visited by his three girlfriends, and all rejoice in a paean, “Another Hundred People,” to New York City. Robert helps Amy and Paul prepare for their wedding. It is this sixth scene that concludes the first part. It begins with the song “Getting Married Today.” Amy expresses her nervousness at getting married; Robert proposes to Amy, who rejects him for Paul.

“I'm afraid to get married, and you're afraid not to” (p. 73). The first part ends, as Amy has declared, with Robert's complete acceptance of the fact that he wants to marry sometime, even though he has witnessed the darker side of marriage. In his song, for example, he expresses his search for the ideal mate. In short he rejects the negative view of marriage and yearns, instead, for the romantic ideal. By the end of the first part, Robert still wears rose-colored glasses. David expresses the traditional need for mating: “I have everything, but freedom. Which is everything, huh? No. … This is everything. I got my wife, my kids, a home. I feel that—uh—well, you gotta give up to get” (p. 45).

The first scene of act 2 opens with the surprise birthday party, and we begin to realize that this event is the ritual to which all return. Whether the birthday party here is the same one as at the opening of the first act, we never know. It really does not matter, since birthday parties, or the remembrances of them, recall the same ritual and tend to merge into one. Perhaps this refusal by the author and lyricist-composer to make events specific results in both the charm and the universality of the show. In the song “Side by Side” (“What Would We Do without You”), we hear the musical parallel. Sondheim returns to the traditional form of a second act opening number and imitates stylistically the 1920s, when the American musical took shape. This production number of 465 measures occupies twenty-eight pages of score. Scene 2 shows Robert in his bedroom with April. As the lights dim, the wives and their husbands sing the song “Poor Baby,” which is scarcely the case. This song is followed by the love dance, performed by Kathy to the number “Tick-Tock.” When the lights reveal the bedroom once more, April and Robert sing “Barcelona,” which ends the scene with Robert's exclamation, “Oh, God” (p. 100).

The third scene shows that Susan and Peter, although divorced now, continue to live together. The fourth depicts Joanne's bitter song “The Ladies Who Lunch” and ends with Robert's “Being Alive.” The latter song is the emotional climax of the musical. The last scene returns to the birthday party and ends with Robert's entrance and his surprise.

In this sketch of the musical, we have briefly described the various scenes and their accompanying musical material. As our sketch indicates, the show continues the pattern revealed in the first three numbers. The musical, although genuinely a “book-show,” does not follow typical development. Instead, it depicts vignettes in the lives of its characters as they examine their interrelationships and pose questions pertaining to the nature, stability, and quality of all relationships. This approach may be attributed directly to Furth. Events in the characters' lives are never central. The musical, therefore, is vertical, not horizontal. The surprise birthday party is simply a ritual, since time and place do not matter. Company became, in effect, a watershed for many musicals of the seventies and eighties, insofar as the linear story, with beginning, middle, and end, had been foremost in many musicals since Oklahoma! Beginning with Company, however, the pattern changes and allows for greater alternatives. Character development has replaced the linear story. We know, for example, more about Robert and his friends than we know about Curly and his.

Not only does character take precedence over story, but the lack of specificity becomes prominent throughout. We cannot find specific answers to the questions raised. Resolving the ambiguities that prevail rests with each person in the audience. The technique is brilliant. It is borrowed from the classics, which remain classics chiefly because no single interpretation satisfies all. The central question posed in Company, i.e., what is to become of Robert, is never answered. The audience cannot derive specific conclusions acceptable to everyone. The score, as an element of the drama, also reflects this ambiguity. No predominant musical style pervades the show. Sondheim draws upon many styles and incorporates them into a series of musical vignettes. The opening number in the second act, for example, reflects the musical style of the twenties, whereas the number that immediately follows it features the accompanied recitative and aria form of traditional opera set in contemporary harmony and with complex rhythmic structures. Like Kern and Rodgers, Sondheim uses melodic motifs, but where the earlier composers employ them either to identify certain characters or to symbolize thematic qualities, Sondheim uses the device to convey uncertainty and indecision. The audience, therefore, must discover specific courses of action acceptable to each motif.

The relationship of each married couple is explored, in part, in the third song, “Sorry-Grateful.” The paradoxical answers in this song are echoed in the relationship between Robert and April in their song “Barcelona,” performed in the second scene of part 2. The song, coming after their sexual act, examines the girl-boy relationship. For example, April, who is an airline hostess, is flying to Barcelona and therefore must leave the bedroom. Robert, responding as he thinks he should, begs her to stay. The apparent result, after numerous entreaties, is that April decides to stay. It seems, at first, that Robert has won. As “she snuggles down,” however, he groans, “Oh, God!” (p. 100). His response here can be interpreted as ambiguous and ironic or as indeterminant and indifferent. It seems that Robert cannot make up his mind. His married friends push him toward marriage and, at the same time, reject his potential mates. His observations of the married state keep him unsettled as to what choice he should make. In effect he takes off his rose-colored glasses. His song “Being Alive” stresses his search for someone to love. Although he has not found his mate by the end of the show, he reinforces his belief that he must keep looking. Or so we are left to believe. Again, the ending seems ambiguous, indeterminate, lacking specificity. In short, Company seems more like life as it is lived, especially in the late sixties.

What Company accomplished seventeen years ago seems prophetic today. The production, first of all, helped turn the musical theater upside down. No longer were large casts, lavish settings, and linear stories required for smash hits. It marked the beginning of the new form variously called lyric theater, chamber musical, or the compact show, which emphasizes thematic material current to political and social thought in educated circles. Issues are confronted, questions raised, sides taken, but the interpretations of answers are left to audiences. Ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of specificity prevail.

Development of character predominates over stories, since more time is given over to the make-up, complexity, and stability of the self. If a story is introduced, it follows a single track, interlocking characters into a central focus on one character: What is to become of Robert? In Oklahoma!—produced almost thirty years before Company—we found ourselves tracing actions of two love triangles, participating in the conflicts of social groups, and watching the formation of a new state. It was like cheering at a three-ring circus, where everything turned out just as planned. No questions were left unanswered. Life seemed simple, clear-cut, and direct. Not so with Company. Like the elevators in Aronson's setting, the show moves vertically.

For all its innovations Company remains faithful to two truths in the American musical theater. First, the conflict between two and three must be continually explored. In Company this axiom is fulfilled at three levels: Sondheim's score, Furth's story, and Prince's staging. Second, the musical must conform, reflect, and enhance the age, society, and milieu in which it is conceived, developed, and produced. Company, emerging as it does in America of the late sixties, succeeds fully in this second truth. The cynicism, abhorrence, and ambiguity of Vietnam produced the bitterness, rejection, and uncertainty displayed in affluent, educated, upper-middle-class New York society. The uncertainty of America's direction during the Vietnam years led to the questioning of traditional values: the role of marriage, the margins of traditional freedom and responsibility, and the validity of social mores. Such questioning pervades the musical.

As Oklahoma! was the landmark, model, and inspiration for almost all musicals during the three decades that followed its opening, Company became the vantage point, prototype, and stimulus for new directions in musical theater of the seventies and eighties.

Bristow, Eugene K., and J. Kevin Butler. “Company, About Face!: The Show That Revolutionized the American Musical.” American Music 5, no. 3 (fall 1987): 241-54.