COMPANY * Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim * Book by George Furth * Directed by John Doyle * Starring Raul Esparza * Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City (open-ended run). 

Halfway through the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Bobby, the central character, is asked point-blank by a married friend: “Have you ever had a homosexual experience?” The two men confess that they’ve fooled around sexually with other guys, more than once. They talk about how understandable, how normal it is. They deny that they’re gay. One of them sort of makes a pass. The other takes it as a sort of joke – but is it?

The audience is dead-silent, riveted by this scene, which wasn’t in the legendary 1970 original Broadway production but was added when the show was staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1995. The scene is provocative because it’s not a conversation we’re used to hearing men conduct. We’re titillated even after Brokeback Mountain and despite – or because of – all the recent headlines about married men coming out. And many people seeing the Broadway revival will have read the remarkably frank New York Times interview just before the show opened in which Raul Esparza, the immensely talented and handsome 35-year-old rising star who plays Bobby, spilled all about his life as a married bisexual: his male lover/mentor at NYU who brought him out, the woman he married and divorced who’s still his “best friend,” the nasty names his mother called him, the new boyfriend.

All of that serves to unearth the subtext that gay viewers have sensed in Company since the day it premiered. The musical revolves around Bobby’s 35th birthday party and his relationships with four married couples and three women he’s dating, all of whom wonder when he’s going to get married. This is a guy who isn’t a kid anymore, who decorated his own apartment, who drinks heavily, who habitually deflects attention by asking questions, whose friends notice that he’s always on the outside looking in, who beds women but never talks about commitment to anyone who isn’t already married or otherwise clearly unavailable…Hello? 
"You Could Drive a Person Crazy"

Of course in 1970 no musical would feature an openly gay leading character. At that time closet cases were still known by the psychological term “latent homosexual,” and homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Homophobia was so socially unacceptable that Sondheim could accurately have characters speculate about Bobby’s bachelor status by saying, “I could understand a person if a person was a fag.” 

That line has been revised now, but in 1970 it was still true that, as Truman Capote once famously said, “a fag is a homosexual gentleman who just left the room.” None of the gay people involved in creating Company were out at the time. A few years later, Sondheim’s sometime-collaborator Arthur Laurents wrote The Enclave, a very interesting play not unlike Company in which a successful man’s social circle of married heterosexuals is made acutely uncomfortable when he introduces them to his male lover. Times have changed, sure, but gay self-hatred and homophobia among well-meaning liberals are hardly a thing of the past. 

So today the is-he-or-isn’t-he? question gets to float much closer than ever to the surface of Company. Although his friends may have no clue what’s going on behind Bobby’s polite silence and his wounded eyes, we can speculate, based on what we’ve read about Esparza. Maybe he’s thinking about that hot Guatemalan he met at the baths. Maybe he’s wondering why his ex-lover committed suicide. Maybe he’s wondering if his mother will disinherit him if he isn’t married by 40. Thanks to Esparza’s brave self-revelations, the general public gets to consider a few more possibilities about “the extra man” at dinner parties.

But the heat that aspect of the show generates is only part of what makes the new Broadway production brilliant. As he did with last year’s superb revival of Sweeney Todd, director John Doyle has the actors double as orchestra. Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s gorgeous, imaginative, scaled-down arrangements rescue some of Sondheim’s best-known songs from the brassy, dated orchestrations that make the original cast album unlistenable today. And Doyle’s directorial concept is even more dramatically germane (and less of a stunt) than it was with Sweeney. Having all the characters except Bobby make music together theatricalizes his emotional dilemma. It deftly and often humorously represents the barrier he feels between himself and The People Who Know How to Love. When he finally sits down and plays piano for his closing number, “Being Alive” takes on a new layer of cathartic power.

Whether Bobby is gay, straight, bisexual, or undeclared is ultimately less important than examining the psychological territory where his undeniable fear of intimacy meets his legitimate resistance to the assumption that “a person’s not complete until he’s married.” Sondheim and librettist George Furth shrewdly explore the cowardly and courageous aspects of both married life and singledom, neither of which is immune to ambivalence, loneliness, power struggles, or sexual deadness. The questions they ask hit close to home for many of us but often get left behind by the expectation that getting married is the most important thing in the lives of gay people. By the end of the play, Bobby’s expresses his willingness to open his heart. Still, the truth is that, for better or for worse, he’s not getting married today.

an edited version of this appeared in The Advocate, January 30, 2007