Saturday, August 22, 2015

THE SEXUALITY OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S COMPANY


     In 1970, Company was innovative, thrilling, and easy to understand, containing just three elements: an attractive, youngish straight man called Robert (that most basic of names, likening him to Everyman); his three girl friends; and a squad of married couples, each pair different from the others. They were the “extras” in his life, the company. Or was he the extra in theirs? And how did he come to know these people?

     George Furth’s book left out a load of details. That mean-girl sophisticate Joanne, for instance, played by the professional mean girl herself, Elaine Stritch: she didn’t seem like someone Robert would know, did she? He appears to like mellow, while she’s aggressive. But she’s the wife of Larry, so maybe…but why would Robert know Larry, for that matter? Isn’t Larry a bit…corny? Robert is hip, right? Sort of? Actually, while we’re at it, who was Robert? Who were any of these people?

     So Company wasn’t all that easy.

     Adding in producer-director Harold Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett, we have a creative team tilted toward gay, and it appears that all four had Anthony Perkins in mind for Robert, both as the model for the character and as the ideal exponent of the role.

     But Perkins was gay, and though he eventually turned the part down, presumably something of Perkins (but how much of him?) informs the creation of Robert, in his psychology, his attitudes, his sexuality.

     This makes Company even less easy yet, especially as the musical showed Robert living in a homogeneously heterosexual environment. At one point, all the company husbands sing, “Bobby boy, you know how I hate the opera,” so apparently he doesn’t even know any gay men, because we take the married couples as symbolic of the people in his life. In 1970, so early in the Stonewall era, if Robert was unusual enough to know a gay man—I mean an out one—the latter would surely have been on the Company stage.

     Further, when we see Robert’s erotic side, he’s in bed with a stewardess. Again, it’s symbolic: this is how Robert typically dates. So he’s not gay—but Anthony Perkins, who was certainly gay in his youth in Hollywood, married a woman and sired children, which makes both Company and Robert extremely not easy.

     I needed to detective my way through these puzzles for my forthcoming book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, but of course all the senior Sondheim shows (the ones that unveil his mature composing style, after Anyone Can Whistle) bedevil and captivate us with puzzles, which is why they keep being revived. You never quite collect them the way you collect, say, Hello, Dolly! or Zorbá. Actors love the Sondheims because there’s so much for them to play, and audiences love them because there’s always more to learn.

     The point of my book is that Sondheim is a classical composer who worked on Broadway, almost as if Debussy wrote musicals. However, while doing so, his imaginative curiosity led him to such offbeat themes and forms—and all with so much content within—that  he perforce ended in intellectualizing the musical. The German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller devised a useful way of considering artwork: it is either naïve or sentimental. That is, naïve art is created instinctively, emotionally, impulsively. Sentimental (really meaning “thoughtful”) art is created by plan, methodically and shrewdly. Here are samples:

      Naïve symphonist: Schubert. Sentimental symphonist: Beethoven.

      Naïve comic strip: Peanuts. Sentimental comic strip: Krazy Kat.

      Naïve blasphemy: “Christ!” Sentimental blasphemy: Madonna’s cone bra.  

 All of Sondheim’s art is sentimental. However, the details of the plan are not necessarily clear at one viewing; Sondheim really did pioneer the two-visit show, too smart and busy for anyone to absorb completely the first time.

     So Robert: after all the times we’ve seen Company, who is he? In certain ways, he is a quasi-Pinteresque figure, so believable yet so fantastical at the same time. And I do remark on Pinter’s influence on Furth’s script in my book. Consider: Pinter was the can’t-miss playwright on Broadway in the 1960s, and Furth would have to have taken those plays in, perhaps from The Caretaker’s fabulous $1.00 balcony seats. Pinter’s theatre can seem utterly unbelievable until you figure out the missing piece, the information the characters never give voice to because they wouldn’t utter it in life. Pinter skips the exposition; as the curtain rises, the development has already started. I give away The Homecoming’s missing piece in the book, but I’m too breathless to pause just now. Moving right along:

     Furth, in his turn, skips Company’s exposition. He doesn’t explain who the principals are and site them in their daily life. He doesn’t explain, period. No doubt Robert, somewhere, somehow, tells someone or other what Robert does for a living. It doesn’t occur in Company, but that doesn’t mean it never occurs. It merely doesn’t happen to come up during Company’s continuity, because everybody in the show already knows him (and what he does), except one of the girl friends, who, in her first scene, is making his acquaintance. And she is an eccentric, not the sort who asks people what they do.

     Similarly, Furth has no reason to define Robert’s sexuality for us in so many words—until the “bisexual scene” was inserted in a revision. Which brings us back to Anthony Perkins: one of the married men does a little something or other at Robert about getting it on with men and Robert does a little something or other back. But is this an attempt to fill in one of Robert’s mysteries, or simply Company getting trendy? And was Anthony Perkins something or othering his way through life? Because the evidence says otherwise. He was gay. Then he was married. Does that absolutely and utterly make him bisexual? Or was something else going on?

     Besides, generally speaking, are there really bisexuals? I’ve met Renee Fleming, Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, Tennessee Williams, and George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush. I’ve even met Sondheim. But I’ve never met a bisexual.

     Here’s what I think: bisexual women are really lesbians who want to see what all the fuss is about and unite with a male. Momentarily. And bisexual men are phallocentric straights who enjoy crossing the line because dick fascinates them, though their emotional-romantic response focuses on women only.

     I could be wrong. This is all anecdotal, and it’s certainly an unpopular view nowadays, when the chic thing is to get on the Kinsey scale at somewhere in the middle. But I don’t think Anthony Perkins was bisexual. I think he was gay. And I don’t think Robert is bisexual, despite what he says in the added scene; we often wonder what Robert’s motivation is for saying what he says, which is part of what makes Company eternally fresh.

     No, I think Robert is a straight man who puts up a No Trespassers sign right at the line where “company” crosses over into an intimacy so dense that you lose your privacy forever. Because Robert is what Schiller would call a sentimental guy—a man who thinks everything through and carefully programs the events of his life. Love, however, is naïve: it takes you thoughtlessly, imperiously. It’s blind, remember?

     Robert doesn’t want to be taken.  But Anthony Perkins did, it would seem. And every time I hear Robert’s songs, no matter who is singing them, I hear Anthony Perkins’ voice in the music, Perkins of those wonderful Greenwillow songs, especially “Never Will I Marry,” with its stab-through-the-heart high note at the refrain’s climax. So which is it, Robert? Which way do you go?

     Well, as the pitch for Peggy Sue Got Married put it: Robert got married…or will he?