Or, we loooooooooooooooooooooove… (13 measures later) youuuuuuuu!
Folks, you’ll be happy to hear your favorite lopsided Sondheim fan is branching out!
Last weekend I got together with a group of strangers to sing through the (still unbelievably) now-late composer’s 1970 breakout hit Company. Let me tell you, spending seven hours tops on a difficult score with people you didn’t know when you started teaches you to trust one another faster than any activity other than maybe whitewater rafting.
The weekend before, I glanced at my calendar and thought wow, that’s coming up, I should really start listening. I was familiar with several songs in isolation, including the one I’d volunteered for as a soloist (more on that in a bit), but not with the show as a whole. Bear in mind, in the intervening week I would get approved for a new German work visa, so I had more than my share of preoccupations. I wondered whether, in signing on for this ‘production’ way back when, I had inadvertently taken on more than I could handle. It was Sondheim, after all.
Luckily, as I was reminded upon a few plays through the original Broadway cast album and a few passes through the score, Sondheim is…Sondheim. If you know one of his shows, you can pretty easily predict his tendencies in another. And if I don’t sing a note of Into the Woods for another ten years it’ll be too soon, so suffice it to say your girl needed a change. Luckily, also, I have a very reliable ear and can get the gist of a song by imitating what I hear. Even still I sometimes doubt my sight-reading ability, but I never doubt my ear.
That’s not to say it’s effortless work—the ensemble opening of Company is more complex than that of Into the Woods in that the characters, instead of getting sections unto themselves, basically talk over one another when they aren’t singing in unison—but once you understand the schtick the composer is going for, you’ve locked down a solid 50% of the notes. (The other 50% are what casts spend months on end bashing down for any fully staged production.)
And I love, love, love this number. Matter of fact, I’m tacking it onto my long-ago list. “[I]s there a more exciting opening number than the title song?” asks the critic who reviewed the gender-swapped Broadway revival—which speaks volumes of the composition, as he was clearly no fan of the overall production. Come to think of it, there’s no reason the introduction to the show that arguably originated that now-classic detached ambivalence in musical theatre should sound so unabashedly exciting, and excited. The tonal signals Sondheim drops to clue us in to what’s coming—the ends of phrases transitioning from naturals to sharps before the major group theme (“Bobby, come on over for dinner”) appears—the relentless forward motion that is the combined effect of the tempo and the main melody—all these choices endeared it to me right away, and all of fourteen days later I can foresee it becoming a rooted, lasting fondness.
Honestly, I could well end up appreciating the orchestrational choices in this number even more than the vocal ones. Their countermelodies, and the way they layer independently of what the voices are doing, are outstanding. The cast album, might I add, has enough early-‘70s instrumental features to make me scream with delight. If JCS represented the heavier prog-rock trend of the era onstage, this was its comedic counterpart.
Back to the other numbers—I mean, if they aren’t just a joy. Some I had not known before diving into the soundtrack, “The Little Things You Do Together” being a prime example, which is far and away the one I sing most often around the house. And others have become, if not standards (ahem, “Being Alive”), then standard enough as to have been encountered by me in revues, concerts, and other non-diegetic contexts. “Another Hundred People” was more rousing than I remembered; perhaps the singer I’d heard way back when chose to play it as more of a downer. (That one and “Marry Me a Little,” I think, are the most indicative of where Sondheim would go especially with rhythm; there’s more than a hint of “A Very Nice Prince”/“On the Steps of the Palace” in there.) I was very happy to get to know “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” in more than just passing. I had no recollection of “Side by Side by Side,” though I’m sure I must have heard it. I could get through a whole month singing bits and pieces of that one.
And then there’s the number I was involved in most intensely, “Getting Married Today.” It focuses on one of the friend couples, Paul and Amy, who are about to get married after living together for years. Amy is having doubts, or not so much doubts as a complete nervous breakdown, which Sondheim dramatizes entirely in music.
I did not realize, in retrospect, what a famous number this is. Sure, it had made an impression on me as a youngster when, in a Sondheim revue, I saw a lady flitting across the stage in a wedding dress and spitting out words faster than I thought possible for a human; but then a lot of things, particularly theatre-related, made an impression on me, and I didn’t dwell on it long enough to consider that it might, for instance, hold a record for most words per minute in a musical number. That record has since been usurped by Hamilton’s “Guns and Ships” (you know, I’ll cede it to Daveed Diggs, he earned it), but still, people care a lot about this song.
I circled back to its libretto in Finishing the Hat, wherein it became a project to mentally read through the lyrics and determine the line breaks and count exactly how each verse led up to the ending refrain. The third verse especially struck me, with the caesura and enjambment of the lines “we’ll both of us be losing our identities—I telephoned / my analyst about it”—and the fact that it goes on to say “and he said to see him Monday, but by Monday I’ll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage.” Such dark imagery, and passing by so quickly, and accentuated with literary devices. All reasons I took a shine to it; all reasons, when the time came to claim a number for this sing-through, I decided to go for it and learn it inside and out so as to turn around and perform it for a room full of fellow musical theatre geeks.
You guys, did you know it also requires singing? Cue me for a week, reciting the lyrics at speed, then trying to match them to the notes on the staff. Not for the faint of heart. Again, I relied largely on copying what I heard, which served me well in the end. To return to Into the Woods, knowing “Your Fault” as intimately as I do, I was reasonably confident in my ability to pull this off. And I did pull it off, but not because it was anything like “Your Fault.” It’s a whole nother ball game. Just the sort of challenge I wanted, after not having done anything remotely theatrical (in public anyway) for over two years.
Score-wise, it isn’t a long show: the numbers amount to about an hour of music. What goes on for the other hour and 50 minutes—if the run time of the new revival is to be followed—I can more or less guess. Well, hour and 35 minutes, excluding intermission. But since it’s a ‘concept’ musical (and has since come to be regarded as the first concept musical) with a book based on George Furth’s series of one-act plays about marital life and strife, I want to see the interim anyway. Sondheim remarked that the point of the show was to take the “upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems” who typically attended the theatre for escapism and throw their mundane existences back in their faces, which I think is fantastic right now but expect I’ll come to resent deeply in my thirties.
I call Company his breakout hit because that’s how it’s generally seen, being the first show of his sole creation to make a big splash (how A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum didn’t do that, beats me). It cleaned up at the Tonys: Best Musical, Best Book, Best Lyrics and Best Score (the only instance of the two ever being divided—special dispensation). There was even a documentary of the original cast album recording sessions, made by none other than D. A. Pennebaker—aka Mr. Dont Look Back, another story of a Bobby whose attention everyone wants.
Documentary Stevie turns out to be another longhair who gripes about only writing lyrics on his first two projects. How degrading. Working with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, who of course was “just a lyricist”…that must have been so hard for you.
And Sondheim himself wasn’t the only one lifted on the tide. Donna McKechnie’s career got a boost; she and the show’s choreographer, Michael Bennett, would go on to collaborate famously on A Chorus Line, which I am becoming more and more convinced is just the most thinly veiled work of nonfiction I’ve ever seen (nor am I going to ignore Marvin Hamlisch’s Sondheim-y cues). And, of course, Elaine Stritch, who I want to be when I grow up, and who was perfect in everything she did. No notes.
Anyway. The show is obviously incredibly influential, and being as attuned as I now am is like unlocking a new level of life where I get to notice all the little influences it exerts on our modern culture. As I noted after the fact, not long ago I didn’t know it, and now I don’t know who I’d be without it. In a week where I finally got a major aspect of my professional life sorted, this sing-through may still have been the highlight, if not simply a very close second. While it’s about a single guy with no single friends—or, as I see it, several married couples who are obsessed with their one single friend—the thrust is togetherness, which I got from the day in spades. Company makes good company out of any…company. Right.
P.S. I know I’m not supposed to apologize for my work and women shouldn’t diminish themselves and yada yada yada, but I feel compelled to note that I am aware of just how many parentheses there are in this text. If anything, the constant self-interruption exemplifies my current scattered mind. May is a packed month, and I won’t be here super often. I appreciate your being here now. ♥️
Image: the original cast, from Playbill
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