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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
Theater

“I Could Understand a Person, If That Person Was a…”

How Company Queers the Marriage Plot

Kyle Turner outside the marquee for the Company revival, seen on Broadway earlier this year. Courtesy the author.
Kyle Turner outside the marquee for the Company revival, seen on Broadway earlier this year. Courtesy the author.

Everything’s different, nothing’s changed. Especially for unmarried and uncoupled Bobby, turning 35, avoiding the question of why he is unmarried and uncoupled in the 1970 concept musical Company. He is confronted by his girlfriends, and they—smartly dressed, expertly choreographed, and (in one revival) sporting instruments to accentuate their talents and sharpen the wrongness of Bobby’s elision—are dreams and ghosts and smoking guns. He stands back, a little bit ashamed, but maybe less for the indecision itself, and more because of the scrutiny.

There are two versions of a line featured in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” the song in which a trio of girlfriends commiserate over Bobby’s emotional unavailability. The original goes as such:

I could understand a person if it’s not a person’s bag,
I could understand a person if a person was a fag.

The latter version, rewritten in 1995, accommodates a friendlier, but no less unwelcome, challenge to a normative ethos about queers and their relationship to marriage:

I could understand a person if he said to go away,
I could understand a person if he happened to be gay.

As these lovely ladies make their case against Bobby, speculating as to why someone who can affect the ideal mate so well would have such an aversion, they include this one theory of “understanding,” which, as theories do, grows beyond minute consideration and morphs into an entire lens. But could they really understand a person naturally disinclined towards such a predictable path?

The question of Bobby’s sexuality in Company, the oft-revived and re-interpreted musical with a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has lingered in the show’s flavor, arguably since its original production, like that one spice you’ve tasted before but can’t quite name. Company is a show about marriage, but not from the inside; it was not merely a shock to its audience because of its lack of linear plot, or that it confronted the kind middle-class-people problems that spectators sought to escape at the theater, but that it was about marriage from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, and not really of that person’s own volition. The fixation on marriage, as deconstructed as original scenic designer Boris Aronson’s crude and elemental envisioning of New York City, is at the behest of Bobby’s friends, whose dysfunctional relationships to matrimony are still more forcefully engaged than his own. Yet it’s this alienation from this particular world, and way of being alive, that proves a more useful way of understanding the show.

Many have written about this question, perhaps as a way to explain away the show’s inherent emotional withholding, a kind of withdrawal that mimics or embodies formally and tonally its lead’s natural reticence. (A bachelor at 35? In this economy?) A gay revival was planned and discarded, and the show’s creators, including director and producer Hal Prince, have played mum on Bobby’s sexuality, though that Furth and Sondheim are gay and Prince was straight naturally informs the text’s sensibilties.

When I spoke with the director of the gender-bent Broadway revival, Marianne Elliott, she was also quick to note the way Bobby (or, for her version, Bobbie) kept coupledom at arm’s length—“She doesn’t drive any scene. She’s reactive!”—thus complicating the character’s broader interpersonal relationships. (Elliott’s star-studded revival played only a few previews before shutting down in March due to COVID.) Both the distance and the assumption of the show’s gay subtext is amplifid in John Doyle’s 2006 Broadway revival, where Bobby (here, Raúl Esparza) is often found on the edge of David Gallo’s icily sharp set, never playing an instrument unlike the rest of his friends and lovers until the end, and confronted with the possibie queerness in his friend Peter.

In that scene, excised from Furth’s original draft and reinserted in the 1995 rewrite, Bobby’s newly divorced friend Peter asks him if he’s ever had a “homosexual experience.” The question, and its implications, perches in the room a theoretical, maybe identitarian, definitely phenomenological, vampire draining the space of air and comfortability. But, really, regardless of Peter’s query or Bobby’s answer, that’s not the thing that makes Company queer.

It’s rather Bobby’s jaundiced gaze towards marriage and coupledom itself, which queers a lineage of storytelling and socialization that presumes such statuses are end goals of satisfaction—and happiness, and completeness, and … “What do you get?” Bobby asks as the musical dovetails towards its emotional climax. In Company, its simultaneous skepticism of marital bliss and the skewed politics of the sexual revolution of the late ’60s reveal an emotionally staid quality in its couples, those who wish for something beyond the confines of traditional marriage but can’t seem to imagine a life without it. Or maybe they just want, as David says in one scene, “a bottom”—some end goal, or pit.

In his efforts to pressure Bobby into answering the marriage question, David fiddles around with his own imprecise understanding of his impulses, skittering, “Your life has a—what? What am I trying to say? A point to it—a bottom. You know what I’m saying? I have everything—but freedom. Which is everything, huh? No.” Even those most adamant about marriage and its complications seem unable to articulate an answer to the question Bobby brands on the musical’s face, a kind of ultimatum both to his friends and the audience itself. Bobby’s friends all have their reasons, each as relatively ineloquent as the next, the pained expressions of one searching for the right words and exact reasons, as if on trial.

Perhaps Bobby’s subjectivity, arguably prone to foregrounding the at-worst-bad and at-best-mediocre things about coupledom, contorts the reality of his friends’ situations. But that “other” point of view, seeing a minor argument about magazines, sobriety, and hobbies turn into a literal home-based skirmish, is crucial to conceptualizing these people’s lives as misshapen steps to the “lived” and “fulfilled” life. This kind of life, the promise of goodness, respectability in modern society, that his friends are so conditioned to need and that Bobby finds so ungraspable, is contained in a chic glass cube, where the material is clear and deceptive. Because little actual happiness is inside.

While his friends struggle to precisely convey what marriage does for them, at least in a manner that satisfies Bobby, ironically, even at his bitterest, it’s only Bobby who has the most specific understanding of why someone would get married. Each phrase of the first part of the show’s final number, “Being Alive,” is delivered dripping with acid:

Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep

It’s a caustic and claustrophobic conception of betrothal, spiked with the awareness of social pressure and emotional collateral, a rejoinder that’s deftly cynical, as if the manic depressive song cycle of a show were a clawed grip on his shoulders. Even in the spoken interludes, his friends acknowledge his perceptiveness, Larry saying, “Robert, how do you know so much about it when you've never been there?” It is, to me, a foolish question, one that indicates the blindspot of those no longer single who have melted into their supposed contentment, while others puzzled by a sort of institutional constraint look on at the developing psychological grand guignol. How does Bobby know so much without ever having been there? in his book The Trouble with Normal, Michael Warner writes “[The] idealization of marriage is typical of those who are excluded from it: priests, gays, adolescents. It shows an extraordinary willful blindness.”

Because he’s watched; and we, who are other, are wont to watch. In Company, marriage is theater, both pulled in multiple directions and inked with gruesome details of wedlock, as capable of undoing people as it is of bringing them together. Everyone is performing for the other, either set in or quietly resisting their inherited roles, all while Bobby watches and his friends beg him to join a show that may never have had a role for him in the first place.

Company, as an abstraction about love and loneliness and sex in the city, is queer not because its main character may or may not be gay or bisexual or queer, but because it dares to let its lead abstract these assumed virtues and expected life goals into the unfamiliar, alien, and ambivalent. These relationships, and lives, are bizarre performances whose artifice is underlined and expanded. No longer the de facto and normative answer to the question, his friends are, with only Bobby as their connective tissue, upended. In lieu of more cynical answers contained in cut songs like “Multitude of Amys” or “Happily Ever After,” we do sympathize with the allure and mythology of monogamous companionship as life’s bottom. It is quite a spectacle. Amy whispers to Bobby almost plaintively, “Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish. Want something … want something.” But maybe this was Bobby’s point all along: you can’t always get what you want.

Contributor

Kyle Turner

KYLE TURNER is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has been featured in Paste Magazine, The Village Voice, GQ, Slate, NPR, and the New York Times. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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