June 16, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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One of the most heartening developments of the past couple of years has been the spreading popularity in theaters of cultural events presented in HD video.  Operas and ballets have become monthly features in many cities, and stage shows are now joining in:  Britain’s National Theatre has been presenting several productions on screen for the past couple of years (most notably Danny Boyle’s smash hit production of Frankenstein); last year’s Tony-winning musical Memphis was shown several months ago; and last month Brian Bedford’s Tony-nominated performance in The Importance of Being Earnest was showcased.  The newest arrival is a taped version of the starry gala concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company that was produced at Lincoln Center in April, with the New York Philharmonic serving as house orchestra.  It premiered this week around the country, and will be shown several more times in theaters over the next few days (the show’s website, with theater information, is here). 

Few moments in popular culture are as unequivocally epochal as the Broadway opening of Company in 1970; there literally had never been a show like it before, and it changed the face of musical theatre, establishing Sondheim as the reigning genius of the era.  Structured with only a loose overall plot, it tells with revue-style vignettes the story of Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris in this production), a single 35-year old whose friends are all married couples.  Their relationships are mutually codependent; the couples rely on him to smooth over the rough edges of their marriages, and he uses them to ward off his growing loneliness.  The score is one classic song after another, culminating in the great “Being Alive,” and George Furth’s book is underrated, or perhaps it’s just aged well now that it’s no longer a topical story of its contemporary moment.
One can’t really review the taped Company as a movie, per se; under Lonny Price’s direction, it makes little attempt to be cinematic (it certainly doesn’t approach the artistry of Spike Lee’s filming last year of Passing Strange), and just serves as a record of the concert.  The staging itself suffers from 2 major handicaps:  the makeshift nature of a production with a cast quickly thrown together for a few performances, with just the suggestion of scenery (some couches that can be rolled around the stage) and little choreography; and also, for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway, PBS or homevideo, John Doyle’s brilliant and fairly recent 2006 production, starring Raul Esparza as Bobby.
Harris, in particular, suffers by comparison with Esparza.  Bobby is a difficult character to play, being passive and reactive for much of the show until his final solo; he can seem sketchy and superficial unless the audience can be made to feel the building desperation beneath his charming surface.  Harris sings well and more than manages the charm, but he can’t bring off anything like Esparza’s explosive epiphany.  (It’s not unlikely that back in 1970, the Warren Beatty of that period was an inspiration for Bobby, and that’s not a comparison that works well for Harris.)  The rest of the cast (Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Anika Noni Rose) is workmanlike but not often transcendent, with 2 exceptions:  Christina Hendricks, as April, Bobby’s stewardess partner in the song “Barcelona,” is just about perfect, hitting every hilarious note of both her dialogue and the song.  And not very shockingly, Patti LuPone knocks it out of the park with her “The Ladies Who Lunch” and the scene that leads up to it.  
Company is a masterpiece, a landmark in theatre history; this production is just a good one, but the chance to see a work like this on the big screen, with full stereo sound and a cast in fine voice, is well worth seeking out.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."