After Stephen Sondheim saw the recent revival of Company in the West End, he told Rosalie Craig, who played the lead role of Bobbie in Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped production: “I wish I’d written it for a woman from the start.”
He told her that no one wants to play Bobby, as the role can feel like a passive bystander to all the “crazy married people” as they make more active choices and having bigger moments all around him. But put a woman in the role, and all of a sudden things start to feel a bit more dramatic.
When the musical premiered on Broadway in 1970, amid a wave of uncertainty and skyrocketing divorce rates, the Vietnam War raging and Watergate on the horizon, the stakes for a 35-year-old man—or frankly anyone flirting with commitment—seemed more dire, as the institution of marriage itself felt at stake.
Today a large number of men are unflinchingly single at 35—especially in New York, where the musical takes place—and face precisely zero social critique for it. A 35-year-old woman, on the other hand? Biological clocks still tick the same way as they did back then (despite some new fertility technology), and while taboo terms like “old maid” and “spinster” are slowly starting to fade (or get reclaimed), society still doesn’t know quite what to make of the growing number of women going it alone.
In 2009, for the first time in American history, single women outnumbered married women, as Rebecca Traister wrote in her 2016 New York magazine piece (an excerpt from her book All the Single Ladies). Just 20 percent of Americans aged 18-29 are currently wed; that number was 60 percent in the 1960s.
“We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration,” Traister wrote. “And the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry.”
Enter Bobbie, Sondheim’s newest heroine, a 35-year-old woman who seemingly has her whole life ahead of her until friends (and biological necessity) force her to consider and evaluate the promise and pitfalls of marriage in a new light.
Sondheim has always written nuanced, complicated women—characters who are, like many in his shows of either gender, deeply unhappy. As Laurie Winer wrote in The New York Times in 1989: “It’s Mr. Sondheim’s wiser strain of woman who is defined not by the relationships in her life but solely by her hard-fought and often moving journey toward self-knowledge.”
By these lights Bobbie’s quest is among the most hopeful. And viewed alongside other Sondheim women, she puts their plights in a larger context: From the child-starved Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods to the drunk and bitter Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along to the aging diva Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, all of these women yearn for something beyond their control: a baby, happiness, fame.
Bobbie is yearning too, but what makes her stand out from the pack is that she’s at the beginning of a journey, whereas the others are mired in the consequences of choices they’ve already made, seeking to amend past decisions and somehow move forward. Dot in Sunday in the Park With George quite literally sings “move on” as she decides at last to let go of her past. Mrs. Lovett, the true mastermind of the carnage in Sweeney Todd, may be the most entangled in consequences, as she is undone (read: killed) by the leading man despite her agency.
Follies might be the Sondheim musical most closely paired with Company, as it premiered just one year later, in 1971, and deals with some of the same relationship uncertainty, though viewed from the end of the road rather than the beginning. Dominic Cooke’s current production at London’s National Theatre (through May 11) showcases these two works’ differences and similarities.
While Bobbie is looking forward to potential relationships in her life as she’s being told by everyone around her that she needs a man to matter, Phyllis and Sally are reevaluating their fraught marriages and affairs, wishing they’d played out differently. As Phyllis (Janie Dee) belts out “Could I Leave You?,” it’s hard not to see her as a potential older version of Bobbie, singing to an emotionally distant partner she yoked herself to.
Director Elliott peppers Company with Alice in Wonderland motifs, from Bobbie finding drinks and keys to surprise doorways throughout the set that take her from one vignette to the next, finally leading to a child-size door through which she enters a mini-recreation of her apartment. The message is clear: Bobbie’s friends treat her like a child, because she isn’t partnered. To layer the story of Alice, a young girl coming to terms with adulthood, on a grown women relegated to a role child’s role because of her relationship status, is illuminating.
In a similar vein, Joanna Riding performs Sally’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies as an aging single spinster slowly spiraling out of control. Instead of singing centerstage in a ball gown, as is typical on Broadway (as Bernadette Peters did in the 2011 revival), Riding becomes progressively more crazed by her situation, eventually ripping her wig off at the end of the number, illustrating how older single women can be stripped of their femininity.
The word “crazy” is a loaded one, especially when applied to women, and both Follies and Company have no shortage of references to these female characters as “crazy” or “insane.” When Bobbie’s three suitors sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” at first it’s hard to believe that three single men would be so eager to settle down. It’s much easier to assume that what they really mean is that she’s crazy for not dating them. And it’s here that we first see that Bobbie is less a commitment-phobe than a woman with some self respect, as each of her dates with these men plays out like a horrible Tinder encounter. (The phone swipe as Bobbie says, “I’ve met some really special guys recently,” is a nice touch.)
Both Follies and Company have characters looking forward and backward. The spellbinding “Mirror Dance” in Follies is a centerpiece of Cooke’s production, as the former chorus girls reflect on their younger days, when they were uncertain in love, and then glimpse their older selves, wiser but marked by scars. The stunning synchronized tap number, which puts the present-day women side by side with the ghosts of their past, is heart-wrenching.
There’s also a mirror dance of sorts in Elliott’s production of Company. During “Tick Tock,” while Bobbie is spending the night with flight attendant Andy (April in the original), she sees a series of “what if” scenarios in a fever dream sequence: Four ensemble members don red wigs and become housewife Bobbie, stay-at-home mom Bobbie, working-mom Bobbie, and pregnant Bobbie. Each is filled with frustration at her husband or at her situation (the working mom struggles with a handbag while wearing her baby), as Bobbie looks on in horror. The next morning when she wakes up next to Andy, whom she passive-aggressively convinces to stay instead of going to Barcelona, her “Oh God” rings all the more powerfully. She realizes, all of a sudden, that maybe she doesn’t want any of it—nor should she have to.
The real love story in Elliott’s production is between Bobbie and Joanne, played with devilish bite by Patti LuPone. Sure, Joanne has a thing for Bobby in the original. But here she’s more of a mentor, a guiding figure in the younger woman’s quest. Her 11 o’clock number “Ladies Who Lunch” now reads as a cautionary tale about all the ways Bobbie’s potentially coupled life could end in unhappiness. Does she really want to become a depressed soccer mom? At an event in London, Sondheim mentioned that he saw Phyllis from Follies as a younger Joanne, establishing another link between the two shows. Is Bobbie doomed to become either Phyllis or Joanne?
The irony of it all is that Bobbie’s friends seem jealous of her unattached lifestyle, and they all fall into their self-absorbed spiral during “Side by Side,” listing all the ways they wish they were like her—but also all the ways they need her to stay single to act as analyst and babysitter. Elliott sets the number at Bobbie’s birthday party, and as the group plays musical chairs, Bobbie is the one left without a chair, standing in the back and reading a book called How To Be Happy.
Bobbie’s arc over her three solos takes on an entirely different shape in Craig’s hands than it would with a man in the part. In “Someone Is Waiting,” the first time she takes centerstage to express her desires, she steps out of Bunny Christie’s diorama-like set, framed by Neil Austin’s neon lighting, to sing her “I Want” song. She’s been looking in, but now she’s looking out. Lyrics like, “Wait for me, I’m ready now, if you exist at all,” don’t just feel more powerful delivered by a woman. The real difference is that the emphasis is more on the repeated refrain of “Hurry!” than “wait for me,” which she sings much more softly. She knows she’s the one who’s likely to have to wait.
Flash forward to “Marry Me a Little,” a particularly crucial Act One finale in this production. When a man sings this song, it marks the opening up of a commitment-phobe, even as he continues to hold a hypothetical woman at arm’s length, not willing to compromise the life he’s used to. But when a woman sings it, she’s flirting with compromise and denying her own needs and desires to settle for something. Craig sings it angrily, frustrated with the idea of compromise. Instead of a man slowly letting someone in, the song becomes about a woman trying to close herself off to become more palatable to a man.
Craig starts out a little desperate and frantic, tossing off a headband and jacket, though by the end she’s crying, showing Bobbie’s vulnerability, realizing that maybe compromise isn’t what she’s after. As she struggles singing, “I’m…I’m…,” unable to get to “ready,” the downbeat of “Bobby, baby” comes in like the drumming of a biological clock as she wrestles with her uncertainty.
And then there’s “Being Alive,” which has become an ultimate love-song standard, an honest ode to marriage often performed at weddings. In this production, it’s still a love song—but it’s an anthem for loving oneself, to a woman’s refusal to accept anything less than what she deserves. While it begins with all of Bobbie’s friends peer-pressuring her onto the side of marriage, they fade away and she harnesses her own desires when she’s prompted to “want something.”
Whereas Bobby has finally come to terms with his desires for companionship, Bobbie has come to terms with her self-worth and her needs. At the end of Company, Bobby opens himself up to the idea of loving another person, while Bobbie has open herself up to the idea of loving herself and not cutting any corners.
What makes this new Company revolutionary is that Bobbie is still single at the end. Mainstream media has long been saturated with tales of the single woman, as Hadley Freeman writes in an essay in the show’s program: From “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Sex and the City” to “30 Rock,” Freeman writes, stories of singlehood “have both reflected the clichés that come with being a single woman, and perpetuated them.” Indeed all of these heroines end up partnered at the end of the story. But Bobbie ends up alone, comfortable in her own skin.
A recurring theme in Sondheim’s work is the “either/or,” from “The Miller’s Son” to “In Buddy’s Eyes.” As the Baker’s Wife sings, “Is it always or? Is it never and?” Do women always have to choose between home and career, success and happiness? Maybe in 2019, Bobbie can have it all, just not in the way her friends or she expected.
Bobbie’s ending is also a beginning—a hopeful one at that. The next chapter might be more uplifting than what comes next in so many of Sondheim’s stories. She doesn’t have to become jaded like Phyllis or Desiree or Mary. She can pave a new path, one that so many more women are starting to chart today.
Maybe that should be the next musical.
Suzy Evans is a former managing editor of this magazine.