The question of whether the lead character in Stephen Sondheim's seminal 1970 musical Company is gay has been hovering over the show for years. Now, Sondheim, along with director John Tiffany, is reworking the show to make Bobby's sexuality explicitly clear.
The show, which won six Tonys for its original run and is viewed as something of a modern classic, is essentially a series of vignettes about Bobby, a single guy who has a bunch of married friends, but can't settle down with a woman himself. Patrick Healy of the New York Times writes that Tiffany, who directed the Tony Award-winning Once and the beautiful revival of The Glass Menagerie currently running, reworked the show so that Bobby is now "a gay man with commitment issues and multiple boyfriends." Some of the formerly female roles will now be played by men. In a reading set to take place this week, Alan Cumming will play Joanne (or whatever he'll be called now), a role famously inhabited by Elaine Stritch in the original. (She sings the show's most famous number, "Ladies Who Lunch.") Sondheim told Healy that while the show will still have the same themes "marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970." He added: "We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way."
In some ways, this is a strange reversal for Sondheim. As John Podhoretz wrote on Twitter: "so all those years saying Bobby wasn't gay were what?" During recent revivals—including one on Broadway in 2006 and one starring Neil Patrick Harris with the New York Philharmonic in 2011—writers have wrestled with Bobby's sexuality, something that is commonly read as the show's subtext. When Harris was cast in the role, Adam Feldman at Time Out New York wrote a piece about Bobby's sexuality and "whether Bobby can be effectively embodied by an actor who isn't gay." When Raul Esparza played the character in 2006, his performance was accompanied by what essentially amounted to a coming out article in the New York Times. Feldman argues that "to be clear, it's not a question for me of Bobby, the character, being secretly queer—if his commitment problems with women could be so easily explained, the show would crumble—but rather of the entire show being, in some sense, a product of the closet."
In a story for Capital New York about the 2011 production, James Jorden came to a similar conclusion. He wrote that the show doesn't have an answer to its central question of why can't Bobby settle "because Sondheim and Furth have taken the number away: the nature of Robert’s sexuality." Jorden notes that when anyone tried to put the idea that Bobby is gay "explicitly" in a production, the idea was quashed by Sondheim and the estate of George Furth, who wrote the book of the show. "Robert’s 'problem' is not that he’s gay," Jorden concludes, after exploring changes Sondheim and Furth had made to questions of Bobby's sexuality. "Rather, it’s that he’s gay in a society where being gay means not having a fair chance at intimacy, if for no other reason that he himself doesn’t understand his sexuality. And it doesn’t matter if the people who created Robert protest: after all, when they wrote Company, they didn’t understand their own sexuality either."
If Bobby were written today he might be a gay man, but the lingering question that hangs over the reworked version is what the show becomes without that complicated ambiguity. At least we know one thing: the music will still be great.