Saturday, August 29, 2015

It's The Little Things, or Why I Don't Like Modernized Productions of "Company"

There’s an Onion article, frequently passed around by theater people, called “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Well, I have an idea for a similar man-bites-dog headline: it would say “Production of Company Set in 1970.”

"You Could Drive A Person Crazy" in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Morgan Dayley as April, Michelle Drexler as Kathy, Teresa Attridge as Marta. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
I’ve seen Company three times: a student production at my college ten years ago; the PBS broadcast of John Doyle’s Broadway revival; and the production that’s currently running at San Francisco Playhouse. None of these productions made an effort to evoke 1970, the year the musical originally premiered; instead, all of them set the show in the present day. And there are plenty of other recent Company productions that feature cell phones and other 21st-century trappings (Terry Teachout reviewed one in Bucks County this summer), but not so many that acknowledge the show’s original time period. (One exception might be the 2011 New York Philharmonic production -- I didn't see it, but production photos show Stephen Colbert wearing a very '70s turtleneck.)

Certainly, this story of a 35-year-old commitment-phobic man, the five married couples he befriends, and the three women he half-heartedly dates, is still relevant for contemporary audiences. If anything, articles like "The Real Reason Women Freeze Their Eggs" suggest that commitment-phobic bachelors are even more of a problem now than they were in 1970. It’s easy to make arguments for why we should continue to stage and discuss Company. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we should set it in the present day.

Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “God is in the details.” Or, to quote Company itself, “it’s the little little little things.” While the big-picture themes of Company are still relevant, dozens of little details in the dialogue and lyrics make clear that Sondheim and Furth are writing about a very specific milieu with specific cultural markers. And this is why I think it’s so hard to convincingly modernize Company.

It’s jarring to see characters wearing contemporary clothes and using cell phones, and then saying things that no thirty-something New Yorker in 2015 would ever say. Nobody these days drinks vodka stingers, or talks about being “square.” Marijuana is no longer an exotic drug, and we call it “pot” or maybe “weed,” but never “grass.” Marta would be crazy about some obscure pocket of hipster Brooklyn, not about 14th Street – and she wouldn’t say “I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain.” Et cetera.

Over the years, Sondheim and Furth have made a few updates to the book and lyrics to keep them feeling contemporary. The “I could understand a person / if a person was a fag” line has been rewritten, and the dialogue now name-checks some post-1970 celebrities like Madonna and Oprah. But it would take a much more thoroughgoing rewrite to make Company seem like it’s truly a product of 2015. Chloe Veltman spends several paragraphs of her review of the Playhouse production arguing that the musical feels dated because all of the characters are heterosexual – and I agree that if someone in 2015 wrote a musical about modern marriage, they’d probably be sure to include a gay or lesbian couple in the cast. But since the rights holders of Company don’t allow you to change the characters’ genders, or any of the myriad references that sound odd in a 2015 context – why not just set it in 1970 already?

If Company is staged with 1970s costumes and emotionally honest performances, contemporary audiences will relate to it – they will see how what it has to say about marriage and commitment are universal, and they will accept the dated chatter about “optical art” and “telephoning my analyst” and all the rest. But if it’s staged with cell phones and contemporary fashions, the 1970s references can make it hard for an audience to suspend its disbelief.

Bobby (Keith Pinto) and Joanne (Stephanie Prentice) in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
Oddly, I can’t think of any other play or musical from Company’s era that gets updated to the present day with such frequency; most other ‘60s and ‘70s shows are now staged as period pieces. This might be because, in its time, Company was considered groundbreaking and progressive. It’s kind of amazing to think that it premiered just two years after Promises, Promises – which the Playhouse revived this past winter, and whose whole story is predicated upon ‘60s sexism. I do think that Company’s portrayal of ditsy flight attendant April is kind of sexist, but most of the other female characters are smart, interesting, and sharply drawn. And because Company’s characters still feel modern and relatable, people think it makes sense to set Company in modern times.

But times change, and 2015 is not 1970. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the life of a man born in 1935 (Bobby’s birth year, if the show takes place in 1970) would be similar to the life of a man born in 1980 (Bobby’s birth year, if it takes place now). Or, since I'm a fan of Mad Men, I try to remind myself that when Company premiered, Bobby and his friends were basically of the same age and background as the younger Mad Men characters: Pete, Trudy, Ken, Peggy.

And that’s the thing: most people who go to see Company at San Francisco Playhouse will have watched Mad Men or other historical-fiction TV shows; or read novels that were published more than 10 years ago; or otherwise discovered that they can relate to works of art that take place in the past. The Playhouse’s slogan is that the theater is an “empathy gym,” where we go to “practice the power of compassion.” But their decision to set Company in 2015 suggests that they think people can’t feel empathy or compassion for these characters unless the story takes place in modern times. Have some faith in your audiences, San Francisco Playhouse. We can handle a slightly more challenging workout in the empathy gym.

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