A few years ago, composer Stephen Sondheim invited director Marianne Elliott over for dinner. During that dinner, Elliott pitched Sondheim an idea she had for one of his musicals, Company. What if the main character, Bobby, usually played by a man, was played by a woman? “I don’t think he really thought it was a good idea,” remarked Elliott, a three-time Tony winner. “So I said to him, ‘Well, why don’t you just let me do a workshop?’” After the workshop, which Sondheim saw, he phoned Elliott and gave her his blessing.
Elliott’s reimagined Company ran on London’s West End to great acclaim in 2018, winning the Olivier Award for best revival. Now the production is set to run on Broadway, beginning previews November 15 with an opening night set for December 9. Company follows a bachelor named Bobby, who is surrounded by married friends who are pushing him to get married. In Elliott’s version, Bobby is now a bachelorette named Bobbie and is played by Tony winner Katrina Lenk.
“It felt like the stakes for the character were much more relevant for women than for men nowadays,” says Elliott of her initial concept for the revival. “[Bobby] has a crisis about being 35. And whether they should settle down. And in 2021, it just didn’t feel like we would care much if it was an attractive man who had lots of girlfriends, lots of friends, and lots of money.” She chuckles as she says this, before continuing: “But I think it is an issue for women who are single and reaching a particular birthday. And they’re realizing that the clock is ticking.”
So in this new version of Company, Bobbie frequently hears a clock ticking, which Elliott says is a metaphor for the biological clock (“Tick-Tock” is also the name of a song in Company that is frequently cut, which has been restored for this production). Because for many women in their thirties who are single and childless, that decade is when they have to make a decision on whether to have a family before their body decides for them. By contrast, the male Bobby barely has to worry about that issue, signaling a key difference in the stakes for single men versus single women.
Lenk had been aware of Company before being cast as Bobbie, but it had never been a show she was overly familiar with. “I’m not puzzled by this man and his singledom,” she remarks. “And then hearing that Marianne was directing a revival of it with the genders swapped, I was immediately fascinated.” She adds, “Women can have issues with whether or not to be with someone, it’s not only men.”
For Lenk, what has been illuminating about this version of Company was the previously puzzling character of Bobby. Company is positioned as a series of vignettes between Bobby and his married friends. Bobby reacts to what is happening to him, but he is not an active character, and his personality is relatively reserved compared to his more colorful friends.
But when you turn Bobby into Bobbie, then her subdued personality becomes more relatable. “That’s something I think women tend to do, as far as people-pleasing and putting all of their attention on their friends and other people,” says Lenk. “And Bobbie is definitely one of those people who’s like, ‘Let me fix your problem. What do you got for me? Let me help you out.’ And very much focused on everyone else’s needs and not so much on her own.”
Elliott has worked with Lenk to give Bobbie a character arc. Company has now become about Bobbie’s journey to figure out who she is, while battling the voices of all of these people telling her what she should do. “She starts with a question mark, which is: Should I blow out the candles on my birthday cake and make a wish to be with a man and to have children, or should I not?” explains Elliott. “And then she basically unpicks that equation to come to a solution by the end. And she decides she doesn’t want to do what her friends tell her she has to do. She’s going to make up her own bloody mind, excuse my language.”
But crucially for Elliott and Lenk, the audience shouldn’t know what decision Bobbie makes. It was important for the team to have that question of “Will Bobbie get married or not?” open. “She makes a decision at the end to stop people-pleasing and to be herself. And then it’s up to you to decide how she does that,” says Elliott.
Another change for this revival of Company has been with Bobby’s girlfriends, who are now boyfriends. Amy, who sings the showstopper “Getting Married Today,” is now a gay man named Jamie. This gender flip of Bobbie’s paramours has raised questions about whether Bobbie can be bisexual (just like how the original Company led to debates over whether Bobby is gay). Lenk is open to the idea, and says that just because this version of the show features cis white men in those romantic roles, it doesn’t mean those roles can’t be more open in the future to actors of other genders. “There are other [actors] we haven’t seen,” remarks Lenk.
But to Lenk, Company is not about a person who is figuring out her sexuality; it’s more universal than that. “It’s something that every person, no matter their sexuality, can relate to,” she says, leaning forward with emphasis. “It’s the fear of being alive, because it’s terrifying to be alive and to exist fully in your whole self and ask for what you need. To know yourself and be yourself in the world is really terrifying.” Lenk adds, “[Bobbie] can be bisexual, she can be whatever. And there’s still also the issue of: Can she be herself? Can she let herself exist fully?”
The genius in this Company revival is that all these questions are possible just by changing the gender of the characters. By opening it up, it makes the show more relevant to today and to the issues that modern women face. Can women have it all? Should they even want it all? Those are the questions that this Company is asking.
“I think that as long as you are respectful of the material and respectful of the craft of the writing, I think we have a duty to remember that theater is ephemeral. So it’s about now,” says Elliott. “And so this production of Company is about now. Somebody else’s production of Company in two years’ time should be about then. So theater should never die — it should always be saying something extremely relevant.”
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