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Just watched Stephen Sondheim's Company
for the first time tonight - the 1996 production taped live in The Donmar Warehouse.
It's a surprisingly dark show, compared with Sondheim's other work - dark in a very different way from Sweeney Todd
altogether. Written in the late 60's and first produced in 1969, Company
was written as a musical that tied together 7 one-acts about a series of married couples and their one single friend, Bobby. It's one of the very first non-linear musicals ever written, a structure that suits the subject matter very well. As a reflection of the time at which it was written, it features the shifting attitudes about relationships and, as Sondheim himself points out in an interview, the dissolution of marriage as an inviolate institution, and growing fear of commitment in society.
Yeah. It definitely has its funny moments ("Not Getting Married" being one of my favorites, and an Olympian test of any performer's comic timing and ability to sing without a break or breath for UNGODLY lengths of time)
, but even though it's billed as such, in my opinion it's really not by any stretch a musical "comedy". The show as a unit revolves around Bobby, the unmarried friend, and his clinical perspective of the clockwork of his friends' relationships. And as a single person myself, I've seen a lot of the things that Bobby sees - the frightening aspects of a relationship - when two people are combined so closely that they sometimes turn on each other and try to strip away their own reflections - the misunderstandings based on a view of another person held so tightly and without distance that disallow the recognition of growth or change - the caustic combination of familiarity and longevity that can sometimes lead to loathing -
And Bobby resists. All his friends, feeling the need to justify their own positions, try to persuade him, fix him up with partners, convince him that what he needs is to find the same kind of companionship that he sees tearing them apart -
And at the same time, he feels the same pressure that they've succumbed to. This would be where the show does show some of its own age, as it reflects a societal imperative toward coupling that isn't as much a part of the current collective conscious - but that will always, to some degree, remain true.
And between these two urges - to deny or to acquiesce - the final number of Act I is Bobby's both cynical and naive idea of the 'perfect' relationship - a sandblasted perspective of a relationship so free of expectations it hardly seems to have sufficient skeletal supports to remain upright - "Marry Me A Little"
The softest kind of pressure never relents though, does it?
There must be something to it, musn't there? Beyond the biological imperative. The social insistences. If marriage is an institution so conclusively proven to be a hit-or-miss proposition, such an iffy bet, a social experiment so rarely destined for success -
Still, it must succeed often enough for it to continue.
And beyond the stinging blows that are so often landed in what is supposed to be the softest of partnerships, the exchange of words so sharp they leave very real scars -
There has to be a reason that people keep doing it.
Clinging together, despite the need to sometimes claw each other apart.
The need to find something beyond the self to live for.
The central device behind the show is a surprise birthday party arranged by the couples for Bobby, and their one desire for him, their friend, is that he make a wish. In the first act, through the wonders of stage magic (read: the birthday cake prop complete with relighting birthday candles that must have necessitated keeping the Fire Marshall's phone number on speed dial throughout the show), Bobby first protests that he doesn't have a wish to make - and then he discovers that he, in fact, can't blow the candles out at all
And in the second act, the idea emerges, just barely recognizable, that even with all the flaws of this over-idealized state - there are, indeed reasons just under the surface. That yes, the ideal is an illusion - but the idea of - wanting
- still has its place.
It's not perfect. Nothing ever is.
The idea of knowing someone completely is an illusion.
Wanting to is not.
Viewing another person always as a flawless artifact, an unchanging and unmarred archetype, is impossible.
Seeing them at their worst, with their jagged edges and unfilled needs and unhealable wounds - and wanting them anyway
- is not.
Musicals beg for resolution. We want to see our characters go on a journey. We want to care about what happens to them, and to do that, we have to see them grow. Or at least show the signs of wanting the same for themselves.
At the end of the show, after a night of heavy drinking, Bobby examines all the evidence. After all that he's seen - the wounding and comforting, the distancing and reunion, he asks himself what about all of it could possibly be worth all of this -
"What do you get
He asks himself, and then he answers.
At the end of the show, Bobby is finally able to blow out his candles. To finally have, and admit to making a wish. Bobby closes the show by wanting what we all must want, in order to survive - the idea of Being Alive
Some would argue that wanting a relationship in order to feel complete is just as much an illusion as the ideal of The Perfect Marriage. These days, most would. This again is where this show survives as a snapshot of another era - one that no longer espouses a spouse as the magic token for completion, but that still recognizes the desire for a sense of completion found only in union with another person.
That's not the fashion these days.
And while it's fair to say that having a healthy self-esteem, being able to be content in solitude, not needing a relationship to fend off lonliness - these are all valid and in fact signs that our society has progressed beyond a model that views every single person as somehow incomplete.
But there must be something to it, mustn't there?
The idea that we still need - to want.
Something outside ourselves.
There must be something to it - the willingness to sacrifice some personal freedoms in service of something that can offer it's own rewards in their place.
To reach something like a pinnacle of attainment, there has to be a focus on something just out of reach.
There has to be a desire for something just beyond.
Something a little impossible.
And somehow still necessary.
There must be something to it, mustn't there?