Cher Public

A Multitude of Roberts

“What prevents Company from being the greatest musical ever written (which, given the talents going into it, it certainly could have been) is that there is something central to the work that is false, a cheat.”

Our Own JJ (not pictured) reveals his theater queen side in Capital New York.

  • Gualtier M

    This is a fucking brilliant analysis. BTW: the issue has come up on “All That Chat”. “Delvino” opines here:

    Delvino Quote: “SPOILER”

    “I still find the new inclusion of a scene in which Bobby must escape the clutches of a husband, just before escaping Joanne’s advances — supposedly his turning point — bizarre and dramatically wrong on many levels. He candidly admits he’s experimented, or something like that, without any guilt or confusion. Politically correct, yes, but real-world man-woman romance issues problem-free, not so much. His experience of bisexuality would be a critical building block of his personality and romantic history, especially in 1970, and lobbing it into the hetero world of the show — aside from somewhat robbing Joanne of a better moment in the next far better scene — now always feels like a titillating cheat.

    I jokingly posted elsewhere that if Marta became “Martin” the show would be more sexually honest. If we met the three single options, and 1 in 3 was a guy, the show would be built on a very different premise. But right now, his retreat from the male advances just plays as a shoe-horned attempt to further spice up a cypher-like leading man. Is his problem that he cannot commit, or likes to screw around, or both? Troubling enough for a romantic interest if his non-stop partying is all with girls.

    But that fact that he’s dallied with guys — well, you don’t have to watch an Oprah on The Dow Low to know it’s no small part of a romantic/sexual history, especially to women who would want him for a spouse, and it’s somewhat disingenuous to pretend we live in a world — in 1970 or now — when bisexuality is some kind of established norm. Even in hip NYC. I’ve lived there for decades, and no single or married woman would think bisexual behavior in a 35-year old guy something to shrug off. Questions come up (as do perhaps unfair assumptions, as Maggie Smith’s character says tellingly in CALIFORNIA SUITE: “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a bisexual homosexual.”) People do not respond with perfect political correctness to hoped-for-partners whose eyes might wander in the locker room.

    Bottom line to me, a fan of the show from the first production through the Doyle: The show was clearer and more potent without it. If Bobby’s bi, then build it into the story from the ground up. As an act two revelation, it’s too much too late.”

    • La Cieca subscribes to the theory that there are three possible sexual orientations in the human male: Straight, Gay and Lying. Robert is bisexual in that he’s both of the latter two.

      • Gualtier M

        I would add in a fourth -- Will Fuck Anything That Moves. Robert is not one of those.

      • cosmodimontevergine

        Excellent and moving essay. What complicates the question of male sexual orientation is the cultural factor. In Latin countries it’s easy to be Homosexual but hard to be Gay.

        • Harry

          Exactly!. As a former South American told it to me. In South American countries, singles live with the parents till you are married. Shacking up with others while unmarried is a no-no , otherwise it is seen as a taken reflection -and a necessary excuse -- for having had ‘bad parents’, culturally.
          So if people want to have dalliances and liaison: they join with others like minded, to ‘chip in money ‘ and share-rent an apartment to do ‘those types of naughty things’. During the daytime -- with families, none the wiser.
          The motto: If they do it while the sun is up, everybody else is oblivious- being blinded, by the bright sunlight.

      • BillysBuddy

        With all due respect to our generous hostess, the “three kinds” theory that bisexuals do not exist has been decidedly disproved, along with creationism and the Earth-centered universe.

        • I’m talking about orientation here, not behavior. Taking observed behavior as a guide actually could “prove” both creationism and geocentrism.

          • BillysBuddy

            I too speak of orientation, and not behavior. The heart knows what it wants, and to characterize desires that don’t fit neatly into dichotomous categories as “lying” seems ungenerous and uninformed. At least that’s the perspective of this Kinsey 6, who has no stake in the question other than (demonstrably extant) bisexuals who are near and dear to my heart.

          • Your reasoning is circular, I’m afraid. Show me the studies that demonstrate a non-trivial percentage of men equally aroused by males and females. (Female bisexual orientation is a different and very demonstrable phenomenon, which I suppose has something to do with the different natures or male and female sexuality.)

            Unfortunately the whole “bisexuality” issue has become heavily politicized, so there is always shrill protest at any scientific doubt about whether male bisexual hehavior is a function of a different sort of orientation from the same-sex and different-sex.

            But this is not what we’re here to discuss, so I suggest we just drop it.

  • Orlando Furioso

    This is (as confessed) a very old take on Company. It’s the most thoroughly argued version of it that I’ve seen, so all credit for that.

    But to me the truth about the show is a lot simpler than that: it’s an excellent-rather-than-great show because character development was (as discussed) low on its priorities, whether by intent or happenstance. In turning a series of playlets into a musical, they ended up with a musical in the form of a revue: songs and sketches (a variety special, if anyone remembers that) on the theme of marriage/commitment, c.1970 upper-middle-class Manhattan. Bobby, as the invented character to tie it together, is a device more than a person, and essentially a reactive one. There is no “real” Robert to deduce behind the lines, because that kind of thought didn’t go into his making.

    I remember seeing the original production (twice) and being stunned by it — by its formal and format experimentation (as well as the Prince/Bennett staging and the Aronson design), and the songs (as well as the novel way they were used). But not by any depth of character. And they never licked the problem of how to bring a plotless revue to a satisfying resolution. So… it’s a brilliant show with a fundamental lack. That still leaves it in the top echelon of musicals ever written.

    • mrsjohnclaggart

      I agree with all. But especially with Orlando Furioso (the name of my mother, coincidence?) that it is essentially a really brilliant review, with situations that lead to songs (most are memorable), rather than a ‘play’ with attention paid to narrative coherence, plausible motivation, or consistency of characterization. I suspect I know for a fact that “Steve” has always been impatient with the nuts and bolts of standard mimetic narrative, especially in musical theater, where to his mind, the need to sing elaborately made songs, contradicts reality and can never be satisfactorily motivated along ‘believable’ lines.

      I did see a hilarious Company in Milan BTW, and was sent the DVD a few years ago by someone I knew in the company. Though I don’t think anyone connected with it was ‘out’, they GOT it. “A-Bobb-a” was pretty swishy (deliberately) as a set point but now and then turned on the macho (it’s probably easier to do in Italian without the creator there!).

      • mrsjohnclaggart

        OT but Pew has declined to support Phila Orchestra, that is the biggest funding source in Philly. There is a bankruptcy meeting on Saturday. This is partly an effort to strong arm the union into severe give backs and the loss for ever of some benefits and prerogatives.

    • The problem here (I feel like I’ve been writing that phrase over and over again for days now) is that the “device” Robert is assigned a big, soul-baring number to climax the show, which implies that has a soul. Again, we are tricked when the game-player changes his mind about what the number is.

      One might even go a bit farther and posit that this kind of unremitting game-playing is a function of being in the closet and therefore having to live an entire life based on carefully constructed lies.

      • MontyNostry

        But it’s only a musical.

    • Orlando Furioso

      One might. (And you did, impressively.) But at the simplest level (for me, sufficient to cover the situation), it’s also just another example of writing a song that doesn’t really fit a given situation. Many a musical has a searing, soul-baring number that comes out of nowhere because the writers didn’t provide the structure to justify it.

      As I said, I loved the musical from my first acquaintance, but when we get that abrupt transition-from-nowhere in the final scene, followed by the song-out-of-nowhere, my reaction was “Huh?” and remains so. It’s poorly planned/executed writing. I’m not inclined to analyze it beyond that, because to me that’s a common enough occurrence in many a show and needs no further explanation. Others, I know, will differ.

      • I totally see your point. Since Bobby is the central character in the show (and the top-billed actor is playing the part), he’s obviously got to get a big number as close to the end of the show as possible. That is the real motivation here: finding a solution for a technical problem of structure. It’s confusing because “Being Alive” is so powerfully written and such a natural for a “killer” performance that one would naturally think the emotional wallop it delivers would be an organic wallop, like my beloved “Rose’s Turn.” But it doesn’t: basically it’s just the headliner belting out a showstopper.

        In the 1998 Secrest biography, Sondheim admits that the number “worked” in context only once in his experience, when David Carroll played Bobby at the York Theatre revival in 1987. The problem obviously is not with the number but with the context: it’s not any sort of believable response from Bobby to what we have seen happen to Bobby.

  • armerjacquino

    I’m aware of this take on it but Robert is after all neither straight nor gay- he’s some lines in a text and some notes on a page…

    I’ve certainly known straight men exactly like him- who have a lot of girlfriends, who have difficulty committing, who are torn between the desire to be part of a couple and the fear of being in one. Many of the straight men I know have had a dabble or two with homosexuality, too. I don’t think it’s quite fair to characterise his sexual orientation as a lie or a cheat. It’s one, valid, take on the character- but only one.

    • Harry

      amerjacquino: Moreover some of these types of men have always pissed me off. They tend to enjoy using the company of others, but looked at objectively: are incapable of giving it.Inside they are emotional cripples or infantile adults. The feelings expressed are, but layers of applied surface veneer. Frightened to lay their as yet,uncommitted cards on the table ‘whichever way’…..and WEAR IT. Who needs them? It allows for that polite social conjecture, that takes place about ‘what they are at’. Instead, all it needs, is a honest statement of fact if they are supposedly a close friend of someone else. I will go so far as saying such types like ‘the convenience’: the ability to exploit a given situation at any one time ..having not committed to a particular identity stance in life. It allows them to both facilitate…. and get involved in a myriad of situations without any form of real inner self guilt. At most, generally they perhaps express some surface social guilt to others, if there is fall out.
      With a show like Company, I would say that a gay and a heterosexual (both truly committed to their own particular identity)in fact, are watching and interpreting two entirely different shows.

  • Found the article very interesting, of course, but I don’t know quite what to do with everyone’s feeling that Bobby is an unworkable character. Mightn’t he just be a difficult character who requires an excellent interpreter? The reason I say this is that I knew the show minimally through the original cast recording, then saw it once in a low budget production that didn’t make much of an impression, then saw it on Broadway a few years ago with Raul Esparza….

    Raul Esparza makes sense of Bobby, I thought, in a way Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t have the right kind of visible neurosis to pull off. The blankness in a lot of the scenes came off as an avoidant reaction to his genuine discomfort with his friends’ overbearing interest in his love life and bad boundaries. The act-closers, in turn, seemed believable as an expression of things his frantic dating etc. had largely suppressed.

    I’m not sure I’m making any sense. Suffice it to say, we might think of any number of characters as ciphers if it weren’t for certain interpreters.

  • grimoaldo

    Great songs, shame about the show.
    This could be said imo for all the Sondheim shows I have seen except for Sweeney Todd and A little Night Music (the latter of which, having seen a number of productions over the years, I have decided I simply cannot bear ever to sit through again).
    Sweeney Todd is great, all of the other Sondheims I have seen, and there have been quite a few, have great songs but the shows as a whole do not work for me.
    But then I really do not like musicals anyway, only the ones that are really operas or operettas like Show Boat or Candide. I hate miked singing and I don’t like the “show style” either, a lot of phony exuberance and unmotivated “up” energy.
    But that’s just me.

  • Harry

    For decades, a few people have believed that the ‘Bobby’ character was in fact, modeled on a male air line steward (and of the same name), that was a very close friend of Sondheim.
    I agree that at the end of Company,though it is pointing strongly all through the show that he is gay, the show stays, still pulling its punches; and we are left flat. Though I mean no offense, the best way of describing the rest of the characters: they are his male and female fag-hags, given the situation. He is inwardly going nowhere.It is a 70’s show after all. Imagine if Sondheim had boldly thrown the fact in front of the then Broadway audiences. I like La Cieca’s earlier astute comment, drawing a paralell with a possibility, of ‘what if’ Sondheim had in Company , allowed the Bobby character to finally have a similar defining ‘Rose’s Turn’ as done in Gypsy (butwith Styne’s music) Sondheim probably had a greater opportunity (and control) to do so in Company, since this time he was writing not only the words but the music as well.

    P.S Even then in Gypsy, I always feel shortchanged at the end of Rose’s Turn where they follow on to the end with a short friendly reconciliation of mother & daughter after their previous, falling out. Another let down, dramatically. It dissipates the power of what we have just witnessed. At the end of Rose’s Turn, that show should have ended with a narrowing spotlight on Rose’s face, going to straight darkness on a savage musical uncompromising down beat. That was the critical moment -Broadway musical and straight drama finally at long last, was wanting to truly collide at the crossroads. They blew it.

    • IdiaLegray

      When I was writing a chapter on Sondheim, George Furth called me to state repeatedly that Bobby is not gay and that he based Bobby on Warren Beatty. Whatever he thought, Bobby reads gay, though I agree that the issue is not sexuality, but commitment.

      • Harry

        Perhaps it suggests, Furth -- is protesting too much.Was he caught on the hop….thought up Beatty’s name ..and he is sticking to it. Had he suggested Garbo (in male form) as the inspirational model, it would be even more plausible. I alluded previously to a gay male air line steward called Bobby, who some I know, believed even at the start of the 80’s, was the true inspiration. I also happen to know the same fellow’s surname and people that knew him directly, as friends. I suppose we let everyone have their own opinion.

        If a main character (as script written) is so deliberately ill defined as to personal self identity, an audience does not have a chance in hell to connect with his dilemma, nor finally care. Whether in real life or on stage: in any possible or proposed form of positive commitment put forward, an onlooker (or audience member) has to be convinced what the person is/where they are coming from / and mature and secure enough for any proposed future action to be seen as genuine or workable. Nothing in Bobby’s character in Company suggests those points in the slightest. And since the reason for the whole show is a single guy ‘an odd man out’…who never bares his soul in some show stopper -- the creators thereby lead audiences on, as well as painting themselves totally into a corner. They, themselves even could not state or commit to what they are really about. And at that time Broadway certainly, was not then ready for any big final shocking reveal a la Albee’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ in a musical of all things. To get Bobby the character out of such harm’s way…his final aspiration is, but pathetically about ‘..being alive’???!!! Immediately, the show was clearly badly flawed. What they were saying: “He may be a first class moaner but for God’s sake, don’t even suggest or think, he is gay for a moment!
        Many decades ago, as kids we all heard polite people speak of such identical characters, by stating “I think that he is one of life’s eternal bachelors and just prefers his own company”.
        Such ‘wink-wink’ euphemisms went out long ago.

        If only Sondheim had written a song for Bobby as raw and frank as Carlotta’s song ‘I’m Still Here’ in Follies..the show may have truly jelled.

        Company: then becomes nothing more than a pastiche in musical form, of a mixed mutual friends group, running their own dishonest self -therapy session encounters While the characters fail to realize they are but passive collaborators both to, and in each others problems. Such: was considered a smart and cool plot line for…the early 70’s.

  • Baritenor

    La Cieca, I think your article is brilliantly written and extremely well-argued, but I don’t agree with it.

    I played Harry in COMPANY in February and spent five months immersed in the show. We had a lengthy rehearsal process, and since the characters are so sketchy we were able to basically invent our own back-stories. There was a lot of time spent on the scene between Bobby and Peter. It was decided that Bobby was straight but had a one night stand with a man in his early twenties. The actor playing Peter (who is gay) played the scene with the intent that the two been friends since college and Peter had been in love with Bobby for years. His attraction to Bobby was made explicit, and we looked at the scene as not so much about “is Bobby gay?” but “how will Bobby respond to another offer of affection.” That was our solution, and I think it worked brilliantly; the scene got a great response every night. I’m sure there are other ways of making the problematic scene work (John Doyle’s production, which was brilliant, took a totally different take and worked beautifully), but that’s one solution.

    If you decide to play Bobby as closeted it’s a very interesting choice, but it’s one that is viable to complicate or even cheapen the message of the show. If Bobby’s closeted, then the show becomes about a gay man wanting to not be gay. But COMPANY is not about sexuality, I feel, it’s about the fear of opening up. Frankly I think Bobby’s sexuality is almost irrelevant. It’s not so much about whether he wants to be with men instead of with women but about whether he can bring himself to be with anyone at all. Bobby’s failure to connect with others doesn’t seem to be based in a lie about his sexuality but a genuine unwillingness to open himself up to others in a meaningful way. Bobby spends the show torn between his desire for companionship and his fear of vulnerability, and Being alive is the moment where he faces his fear and, maybe, overcomes it.

    (By the way, one of the points you make in your article is that Bobby admits to having a homosexual experience “More than once.” In fact it is Peter who says the “more than once” line. Bobby only admits to have having a gay experience during his adult life; it is left ambiguous whether or not this was an isolated incident.)

    • armerjacquino

      Beautifully put. I think Company is a much less interesting show if it’s about a closet case; Robert’s ambivalence is more powerful for me if it’s based in his response to couplehood rather than an attempt to conceal or deny his sexual orientation.

      Want something. Want SOMETHING.

    • I hope I didn’t give the impression that I was prescribing that Robert must be played as a gay character to make the show work, because I don’t think that at all. What I am saying is that Robert is written inconsistently, based on an internal contradiction that I don’t think can be resolved in a dramatically satisfying way — or at least can’t be resolved without applying a good deal of tortured reasoning to a character that, on the page, is no character at all, but a cipher.

      You say that the point of the show is “whether he can bring himself to be with anyone at all.” Fine. That’s established by 8:30, and in fact the people creating the show didn’t even know the answer to that question. “Being Alive” is the third song written for Robert’s “epiphany,” and Sondheim and Prince have both frankly admitted that the song was put in place to make the show more commercial by sending the audience out of the theater on a more upbeat note. But it’s essentially a happy ending tacked onto a tragic story: the play as written doesn’t “earn” that finish. It’s certainly not motivated by anything that we have seen happen to Robert, as opposed to something that a director may have made up that “happened” to Robert as back story or as subtext to some scene that is so (as you say) “sketchy” that it could mean anything. (Are we really supposed to believe that Joanne’s lecture is supposed to make Robert suddenly have a revelation? “In vino veritas” is the cheapest kind of melodrama, a triumph of convenience over verisimilitude. One might as well have a messenger arrive to announce that Robert’s uncle has died and the errant manchild must now return to his homeland to take charge of the family estates.)

      I’m not saying this show isn’t fun and exciting to play, and I’m also not saying that audiences respond to it coldly: they don’t. But at the same time, I think you and a lot of other intelligent people are responding to something that you think should be in the show but isn’t.

    • IdiaLegray

      The recent London revival, one of the best productions of the show I have seen with the most credible Bobby (Rupert Young), had an interesting take on the Peter-Bobby scene. Just as Bobby realizes Peter is propositioning him, Peter’s live-in ex-wife materializes next to him, nodding eagerly. Clearly they are offering a threesome. Or a foursome, given that Marta is somewhere on the premises. Bobby’s reaction suggested that he thought this was all a bit too messy.

      • Or Peter could remove his latex face mask and reveal that he is a space alien: you can see how Bobby would find that a turnoff as well.

  • mercadante

    What, no trench coats, no updating, no relocating to a third world dictatorship, no-one drinking urine, no women in saran wrap self mutilating because they are exploited sexually? What can be happening to Broadway?

  • Henry Holland

    Dear Neal Patrick Harris:

    Shaving off that wonderful chest fur of yours off is an abomination. It doesn’t make you sexier, even if it makes your wonderful pecs even more obvious, it just makes you look like a clone.


    A Disappointed Fan

    • De gustibus non disputandum chest. Twinks have their fans, too.

      • Harry

        Shaven chested muscled twinks … Oh, where did you leave your maiden form bra?

  • kph11863

    Ambivalence which intrigues but frustrates -- this is what has drawn me to COMPANY as a viewer and musical director ever since I first encountered the show in a college production in 1982 (in the old version without the added Peter/Robert scene and Larry’s comments in the Joanne scene). Just like the noncommittal nature of its observing lead character, the show itself doesn’t commit to definition of any kind. Even the very last scene of the show is left up to the interpretation of a director or actor. In an actual, real world, where does Robert’s life go after the show? Is he wiser from what he has learned or does he continue his search for “the truth” for him but with different people as his subjects because he learned what has needed to from them? Does he remain single, uncommitted and emotionally isolated for the rest of his life? Does he eventually find somebody for him rather than some-body? The experimental nature of this piece lies in this ambivalence, in making the audience look into a mirror to see themselves and consider the quality not only of their romantic but their non-romantic relationships as well. The busy signal in the original version emphasized this ever-growing disconnect between people.

    I saw the telecast of the John Doyle production, and while Raul Esparza is definitely easy on the eyes, his characterization of Bobby in the beginning was way too cynical, jaded, and bitter for me to empathize, sympathize, or really even like for long. It made a bit more of a stretch for me to feel for him in his outpouring soliloquies. While I understood Doyle’s unique approach for having the cast play instruments and to eventually have Bobby join the parade of life, the metaphor came off more as an overused gimmick and a distraction to me.

    As for Neil Patrick Harris’ take on Bobby -- these staged/semi-staged concerts have a very limited rehearsal period within which to gestate. I don’t think that the entire cast had been together until Thursday evening’s performance (college students and understudies filled in the gaps). These concerts were more events to allow noted celebrities to show off sides of them many may not have known that they had, and it succeeded at various levels. Harris, however, has developed a history of musical theater with his runs of ASSASSINS, RENT, and CABARET. I think I am one of the few who actually liked his take on “Being Alive”. Yes, he in real life is openly gay with a partner and two new kids. He, no doubt, has experienced in his own way, the feeling of emotional loneliness when he wasn’t in a relationship. I think he called upon that and was able to show that in his performance.

    I agree with baritenor and armerjacquino’s thoughts. I am gay myself -- 48 years old and have not been in an LTR. Why? I haven’t found a man to whom I would want to commit to make a relationship work as I would hope for. Would I feel the same way if I were straight? It would be hard to say for sure, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I would.

  • phoenix

    After nearly 24 hours of trying to figure out what this thread is all about, I think I figured it out:

  • stignanispawn

    Having seen the original production of Company twice during its pre-Broadway tryout — from my stroller of course — and several professional and not-so-professional productions since then, your take on Company is the best I’ve ever read. Brava diva!