Monday, March 22, was Stephen Sondheim’s birthday, his 91st, and it came and went without one of the star-packed concert extravaganzas that marked previous milestones in the composer’s life, musical celebrations that were staged at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center and are still racking up views on YouTube.
Even last year, as Covid-19 was in its first months of devastating New York City and had already scotched the planned opening night of the 50th anniversary Broadway production of Company –– an opening night that also would have marked the composer’s 90th birthday — the theater community came together, virtually and a month after the fact, to sing the great man’s songs in a remarkable, precedent-setting Zoom-style benefit event. Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Celebration was livestreamed on April 26 as a sort of pandemic rain date for Company‘s stolen night.
NY Mayor Bill De Blasio Announces Broadway Covid Vaccination Site For Theater Workers, Sets September Reopening Goal
None of which is to say that Sondheim’s most recent birthday passed without commemoration: In perhaps the strongest public pledge yet that Broadway’s revival of Company headlined by Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone would be back, producers of the Marianne Elliott-directed production tweeted a short video clip of Lenk, in character as Bobbie, plugging an electrical cord into a socket and lighting up a big neon Company sign. “Coming back to Broadway. Tickets on sale soon,” the promo promises, listing the names of Lenk and LuPone to vanquish any doubt. Two of the tweet’s hashtags were #WaitForUs and #BroadwayWillBeBack.
As New York and its live venues begin the slow inching toward a vaccinated reopening, Company‘s March 22 tweet was as solid a Broadway forecast as we’re likely to get before the city’s weather turns steamy. Company producer Chris Harper tells Deadline that a marketing campaign and a ticket plan will kick into gear as soon as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives the all-clear signal, hopefully in April or May, with a target of returning to the stage this fall.
Even before the tweet, the Company principal cast shared with Deadline the hopes, dreams and trepidations for the coming year. In Part 1 and Part 2 of Deadline’s Company pandemic-year oral history, the cast recalled a spring, summer, fall and winter in shutdown mode. Now, in Part 3, the company of Company — LuPone, Lenk, Bobby Conte Thornton, Matt Doyle, Christopher Fitzgerald, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Terence Archie, Etai Benson, Nikki Renée Daniels, Claybourne Elder, Greg Hildreth, Kyle Dean Massey and Rashidra Scott — look ahead, pondering both the rewards to come and the tolls to be paid.
All interviews were conducted separately, and in several instances via email, and have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Claybourne Elder (Andy, originally April) Actors are not nurses. We’re not saving lives. If anybody can stay home, we can, and that is nothing against my community. I think most of us feel that way. We absolutely should have stopped exactly when we did and we should not come back until it’s entirely safe.
But what I’m worried about the most, frankly, is not for me, who’s at mid-career. I’m going to be fine, Patti LuPone is going to be fine. It’s the kids that just showed up and who were just barely going to make it that I worry about, especially young people of color. I was never a trust fund kid but I was fine and I had people to support me. When I showed up in New York and was taking that huge risk because I hadn’t graduated from a fancy school, I knew that the worst case scenario was that I could go back and live at my parents’ house and they would take care of me. That is not the case for most people, and the chance to do this dream is completely crushed for a large group who are now back in their hometowns working at Applebee’s because they have student loans to pay. There’s no miracle chance that they’re going to book a Broadway show. There’s no chance to even be in New York working at a restaurant and making good tip money. Those kids are gone, and what is Broadway going to do in several years when we need them? Are only the really lucky and the really privileged going to come back?
I know that there are a lot of organizations that have gathered around this topic about helping the next generation, helping kids get paid internships, getting them in the door, but when we’re talking about bail-outs or funding or backing or whatever you want to call it, it shouldn’t be just about helping people like me pay their mortgages. It has to help those 19-year-old kids who blew their shot and were living in New York for six months trying to go to auditions and waking up at 5 in the morning to wait in lines and then had to leave the city. How can we help a person like that?
Nikki Renée Daniels (Jenny) At the risk of sounding cheesy, I just love singing. It’s the passion of my life, other than my family. Even when I’m not working, I’m always singing or practicing or learning, going back to my old opera aria books and trying to learn a song. But I miss being with a cast. The special thing about Broadway is that it’s different every night. I’ve done a few little TV gigs and stuff since we’ve been off, and you feel like you don’t have control over the final product of your own performance. Even with these virtual concerts I’ve been doing, you tape a song four different times, and you don’t know which one they’re going to use. Now, yes, it has been nice to not feel the pressure or the instant worry when you get a sniffle or a sore throat and you have eight shows to do and you’re like oh, no, am I going to be out? But being on Broadway, every night the show is different, and alive, and you feel like your performance is your own. I did The Book of Mormon for four years and there was always an understudy or a new cast member or something that just kept it so fresh, and that’s so specific to Broadway.
Christopher Fitzgerald (David) It’s unbelievable what theater has survived. People doing plays in front of each other is the most elemental thing to our humanity. It’s going to be unreal when people are back singing songs on stage. It’s going to be overwhelming. I was thinking about something the other day. Years and years ago, I went to Belize with my wife, and we went caving in Mayan caves. We were deep in these caves for an hour or two, with this guy we didn’t even know, some random guy who was showing us these caves, and it was really dark, and wet, and I was like, oh my god, if this guy passes out, we’ll never get out of here.
Finally, he leads us back out, and I just remember how lush everything looked, and how overwhelmed I was by the colors, and the sounds, and the saturation of the world after leaving this dark, dark cave. I keep thinking about that, and about how it’s going to feel so colorful and beautiful when this pandemic is over, and we’re going to be hugged by music and by stories. It’s going to be overwhelming, I think.
Terence Archie (Larry) Some things are always going to be essential in a more immediate sense. We need food and water, you know, but there’s also that essential quality of connection. We go to the theater to connect. That’s why people don’t mind when they’re sitting in those small seats in so many of these Broadway theaters where we’re right on top of each other. We’re there not just because we want to be there, but because we need to be there, and we need to have our lives and our realities reflected back onto ourselves. That’s what the theater does. We can have catharsis. Food and drink don’t necessarily do that. I’m a fan of food and drink. I love food and drink, but they don’t really feed my spirit, you know? The theater is essential. We need the culture of theater to keep us sane. I believe that.
Patti LuPone (Joanne) Even with the vaccine and even with this industry that needs to come back because of the amount of money it generates for New York City and the amount of businesses that depend on Broadway – doesn’t Broadway make more money than all the sports teams in New York combined? – it’s not up to us. It’s up to the audience. Right now I don’t know who wants to sit in a theater with a mask on their face. It’s already a pain in the ass to sit next to people in the theater.
Katrina Lenk (Bobbie, originally Robert) I try to make the best of the situation, working out and keeping physically fit as much as I can, singing and practicing every day, working on new music, working on my own music, and eating, and watching way too much television. Sometimes I’ll play a game of What would my character Bobbie be doing right now? What’s Bobbie like with Covid? How’s she dealing with all of her anxiety? Would she have a Peloton? Probably not, so maybe she will run up and down the stairs in her apartment building, but then she would get freaked out that maybe she doesn’t have symptoms but she’s a Covid carrier and if she breathes too much in the stairwell the elderly lady down the hall will catch it when she throws out the garbage, and so no running up and down the stairs. She’s probably just wrecked with her anxiety, but also has the relief of, oh, I guess I don’t have to worry about being in a relationship right now because how do you start a new relationship on Zoom? So the pressure’s not there but the clock is still ticking, and she’s wrestling with loneliness and being an introvert. Maybe she’ll get a fish, but then what if she messes up and overfeeds the fish or doesn’t clean the tank and the fish dies? So she won’t get a fish.
Bobby Conte Thornton (PJ, originally Marta) If the final stage of grief is acceptance, I think our version of acceptance right now is just acknowledging that we don’t know. You can’t hold out for something that is very much not in your control. You have to sort of take stock of your new reality and try to find daily purpose and daily joy while understanding how fortunate we are to have this job waiting for us whenever theater can come back.
Greg Hildreth (Peter) I’ve been teaching acting on Zoom, and I finally met my student yesterday in the park, outdoors, in person because I was like fuck this Zoom. So we met in Prospect Park for a little acting lesson. It felt kind of human.
Kyle Dean Massey (Theo, renamed from the original Kathy) I love doing the show and I’ve really enjoyed the cast but I’ve had to kind of just release it, you know? However it’s going to be it’s going to be. Performing is a really wonderful thing, but if you’re going to do a Broadway show it’s kind of depressing if there’s no one out there. I don’t know that anybody wants to go back and do a show if people aren’t going to be able to come see it. It’s hard to know, especially when you live on the other side of the country like I do. Am I going to pack up my bags and go there again in hopes that we have a run under us? I don’t know. I’ve kind of quit trying to speculate.
Claybourne Elder I think it is inevitable that it will come back. My mood today is one of a person who feels so optimistic because we have a new president and I feel like the sun just came out for the first time in a very long time.
Broadway will come back and people will be so hungry for live performance, to sit in a theater and see actual people that they will come in throngs. I think it will be stronger than ever. For all the shows that have unfortunately closed for good, my heart just aches, but we have to get something else going. We have to start up again. I hope that our show is back. I have every intention that I will be, and I believe that our producers are very confident that Company will be back, but anything is possible. I think if we’ve learned anything this year it’s that anything is possible.
Christopher Sieber (Harry) Our producers have pandemic insurance, so our show will come back. We do know that for certain, so I do have a job, we all have a job. It’s just when will we go back to that job, that’s the thing.
I was scrolling back to pictures from a year ago when we were still in rehearsals and I was looking at myself. Back then I was thinking that I was going to try to lose some weight. Now I look back at those pictures from a year ago and I’m like, you know, I wasn’t so bad.
Etai Benson (Paul) Our producers have given us confidence. Every time they’ve touched base with us, they’ve never revealed any sort of fear or insecurity that we would not come back. When Broadway comes back, we will be there, and I have every intention of staying with the show.
I love this show. I think the best art is always relevant during whatever time it plays in. A good play is always relevant, and I think Company will just resonate differently when we come back. This is a musical about self-isolation, and even the way our set works is that it’s often all of us crammed in a tiny box. I think that’s going to read very differently to a post-pandemic audience. Bobbie sings “alone is alone, not alive,” and I think about all the people who have had to be alone during this time, or have lost people and are now alone, and what those words will mean and what those images of all of us crammed in a box will mean in a post-pandemic world. It’s going to resonate so differently than it would have in March of 2020. I’m looking forward to being a part of that.
Bobby Conte Thornton My character P.J., who in the original production was named Marta, sings “Another Hundred People” which is one of the greatest songs Stephen Sondheim has ever written, and it’s also one of the quintessential New York City songs ever written. The way we interpreted it back when we were doing the show – in the Before Time – was really so special. It had been portrayed in the London production as a Brit who had just immigrated to the States, so the song was not only sung as someone in awe of New York City but in awe of America, and it was staged in a very specific way. All of that was thrown out the window when it came to Broadway, so it felt like a real privilege and an honor to be given the responsibility of taking something from nothing and trying to find what it was.
I don’t know whether the way I’m going to interpret it will be different when we reopen, whether there will be more trepidation in the way of someone literally with more fear in his voice singing about another hundred people getting off of a train. This character, as described by George Furth, proclaims to be the soul of New York. Marianne Elliott described him to me as like a lightning bolt, a thunder clap, someone who takes this energy from the ground below him and puts it back out into the city, and towards this woman Bobbie that he’s so infatuated with.
But I don’t think I can live in that space. I need to live in a mindset of awe and curiosity and wonder and joy, while still conveying what’s so great about this song. At one moment it can be about endless wonder, endless possibilities, endless opportunities for connection, but on the flipside, especially in our 2021 world, about the disposability of love, of saying, “I feel this connection with someone but is that good enough? Because I could just go get on my phone…”
“The balloon is up there, I can feel it if I tug, and when it’s time to reel it in, I’ll reel it in”
Patti LuPone My dilemma is, Will I have the energy to go back to work? Will I have the energy, especially, to go back on stage? You know, doing television or a film doesn’t require the same physical energy that eight shows a week on stage requires. I mean, I have phenomenal energy. I am a descendent of Italian peasants, so I have phenomenal energy. But will I have stage fright? Will I be able to get back on the bike? I don’t know that, and I also don’t know if I even want to. It’s been so long that I’m questioning my desire to continue in this business.
We’re told we’re going to go back, but I don’t know. I don’t know anything. That’s the worst part. And the longer we don’t do it, the more I question my desire to do any of it. Everybody wants it to go back, but when that happens, it could be two years that I haven’t been on stage.
Vocally, I’ve got cords of steel. I’m doing a demo record for a friend of mine, and the guy that’s working with me can’t believe the shape of my voice, nor can I. It sounds like I made a pact with the devil because I haven’t lost any of my high notes, and I’m singing better than I’ve ever sung before. I haven’t belted Fs since Evita, and I’m belting Fs. So the voice isn’t an issue. And the body is much better than it’s been in a long time. I’ve had an injury on my shoulder since Sweeney Todd, and I thought, well, this is the time to get a shoulder replacement. So now I’ve had two hips and a shoulder replaced, and I’m working out every day.
I suppose the reluctance I’m feeling is because I’m guarding against disappointment. Can you imagine being in a state of expectation for this long and then, all of a sudden, they go, “Well, too bad.” I mean, talk about going to the dark recesses of your mind. I’m trying to keep myself open to the fact that we are coming back and that we are not coming back. I’m trying to figure out how to find a neutral place to be happy, to be emotionally safe in this turbulent time where it’s all coming at me from every single angle.
I think I’m trying to rationalize the possibility of it not coming back. If we’re all geared up to go back and then we don’t, that is a bigger disappointment than saying, “Well, I don’t know if I want to go back. Oh, they’re not going back? Well then I made the right choice.” You know what I mean? It’s a lesser emotional letdown if you just sort of go, Yeah, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t.
Katrina Lenk I’m really working on not planning things. Or only planning things very, very loosely. At the beginning of Covid I felt like I had to hold on to Company really tightly – the story, the choreography, the music, the ideas, all of it. I had to make sure that it was really close and I could feel it in my hands. Now it sort of feels like a balloon on a string, and I’m letting the string go farther and farther and farther. The balloon is up there, I can feel it if I tug, and when it’s time to reel it in, I’ll reel it in.
Terence Archie With this ever-growing appreciation for having the ability to do what I’ve been able to do, and how much the world really needs it, I feel like I have a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility that may not have even been achieved without this very humbling experience, you know? Yeah.
Matt Doyle (Jamie, originally Amy) The darkest was right before the election and right before the vaccines were announced, around September and October. Our industry and all of our producers were hoping that maybe the vaccines would be 70 percent effective, and then we got the announcement of being 95 percent effective. We can’t really overstate how incredible that is.
Jennifer Simard (Sarah) I think psychologically there has been a real shift, where you feel, okay, I did it for ten months, I can do it for five more, six more, eight more. You know? It’s like running a marathon and having someone hand you a Dixie cup of lemonade at the right moment.
Claybourne Elder I was really lucky to have a child through this time, especially a toddler because they require so much attention and they don’t require you to be happy. I want him to be happy. The gift of the year was that I got to spend an entire year with my son before he becomes school age. I got to really know him in a way that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know him if I had been in a Broadway show, busy, busy, busy.
Another wonderful thing is our producers reached out to all of us early on and said this is an incredibly difficult time for everyone’s mental health and we would love to help you with some sessions with a therapist. They paid for anyone who wanted to go to therapy for a while. I took them up on it. I mean, I don’t think there was a time in which I felt like something was taken away from me in an inappropriate way or in a way that was not justified, and there was so much else in the world to worry about, but having something so exciting with so much momentum taken away so quickly was incredibly sad, incredibly hard.
I don’t have a wonderful metaphor prepared for all this so just go with me: It’s like you’re eating ice cream and the ice cream gets taken away. It was nourishing you in some way and you loved it, but crying about it doesn’t make anybody feel bad for you because it’s ice cream. It’s hard for anybody outside the theater – like everyone who is in my family – to understand what happened this year. To them it’s like, oh, you didn’t get to do your recital. And, okay, it is a recital in a way, but you’ve worked your whole life to get to do this thing and you’re really lucky when you get your few chances. Even if you’re a very successful Broadway actor, even after you become famous, most of your life you’re not on Broadway. You’re mostly not doing it except for that one year when it happens.
Matt Doyle Just the idea that we’ll get to do it again is what gets me through. The very idea of going into rehearsals is so exciting because we’ve all just gotten so comfortably numb to the tragedy of it all. I just keep focusing on that. I think everyone in the industry right now is very, very hopeful for a 2021 return, but for the past year we’ve set the goal posts farther and farther along. So it’s a cautious optimism at this point.
Rashidra Scott (Susan) Going back to the show, that’s the plan, absolutely. I’m kind of in a good place because I recently had a Zoom meeting with a new agency. I’m going to call them and accept. That’s kind of lit a fire and given me a little pep to my step. I’m not just kind of floundering by myself. I also checked the mail today and got some money from a voiceover session that I did at the end of December. And in a few hours my husband and I are getting in the car and driving to see my mom in Virginia. It’ll be my first time home in about two years. In this industry, I never get the chance to say I’m coming home and I don’t know for how long. The last few times have been 36 or 48 hour trips at most. So I’m excited, just to have some time home with my mom and my family for a little bit, and for a change of scenery from this little apartment living.
Patti LuPone Let me tell you something else. Since 9/11, I have been afraid on stage because anybody can walk into a theater with a gun and shoot the player, shoot the messenger. I’ve had crazy people in the audience. When I was doing Master Class, at the end of the first act I saw someone go up the aisle and leave while I’m doing a speech. My head goes, Well, lost one.
But he went out and then came back into the house down the center aisle and screamed, “This is shit! This is shit! Fuck Terrence McNally!”, and my head went right to, Don’t shoot the messenger, don’t shoot the messenger. The audience didn’t know whether it was part of the show or not.
So I’m terrorized. They’ve won with me. They won with me after 9/11, and I am terrorized now with this homegrown terrorism. Not that a Proud Boy or a Boogaloo Boy is going to buy a ticket to Company just to shoot up my ass, but you don’t know. I have been vocal about my hatred for Trump, so I don’t know how safe I am on stage. I mean, when I said what I said on the red carpet at the Tony Awards three or four years ago, [“I hate the motherfucker,” 2017] the hate mail was insane. There was maybe one with a rational critique, but the rest of them were crazy, and I thought, well, now I’m out there, and now, if I go on stage I’m vulnerable.
It’s equivalent to stage fright, in that you don’t get stage fright every single night, but I’ve been on stage and all of a sudden I have stage fright and I don’t know why. It just comes over you, and you think, Oh, what’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going on? Concentrate. Concentrate. Don’t leave the world…
I feel a sense of paralysis. I really do, and I think it has to do with all the misinformation that we were made to ingest during those four years with that clown in the White House. So now I’m thinking about going back on Broadway, and it’s almost the last thing in my head. I said this to Marianne Elliott when I was in London in rehearsal for Company and I actually said out loud, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I think I began to offend her, so I said, no, no, no, this is about America. This is about Trump. I said, I feel superfluous. I feel being on stage doing a musical is superfluous in these times. And in a way, I feel that now. I know that theater is a relief for people in the audience, but what about the people who have to do it?
Jennifer Simard When Company comes back, the scene that I have with Christopher Sieber is quite physical and requires me to be in really good shape. So my next few months or however long it takes is about getting in shape. It’s a pandemic, and we’re all just trying to survive, but I definitely gained the Covid 15. So I bless those pounds, I thank them for their service, and now it’s time to say goodbye to them. It’s time to move on.
Nikki Renée Daniels I’ve definitely had a lot of hope since Biden’s inauguration, that a concrete plan is being implemented to get us back up and running as a society. I never really lost confidence in Broadway as an industry, because I know that they want us to be back as soon as safely possible, but hearing from our union, and seeing that shows are starting to advertise again is really thrilling.
Bobby Conte Thornton It’s hard not to take potential return dates with a grain of salt. Part of me is just waiting for the inevitable delay again, as has happened over and over this past year. But as so many dear friends and colleagues are now getting vaccinated, I’m feeling hopeful again. Which is terrifying, as it naturally leaves your heart open to hurt and betrayal. But in a year of continuously managing expectations and putting my own personal grief in perspective as hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives during this pandemic, hope is the feeling that’s persevered. And must persevere.
Greg Hildreth January and February were bleak. But my mood is improving as it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming more realistic. I’m a jilted lover and I’ve been burned before so I’ll remain simultaneously hopeful and cautious. I’ll do my best to manage my longing until we’re really back. I can’t wait to get back to work.
Jennifer Simard My mood is one of gratitude and pragmatism. None of this would be happening without science giving us a vaccine in record time, nor a roll out and aid in record time because elections matter. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senate have helped us. It starts at the top and our city and industry are now able to help us because they are being helped.
Patti LuPone I’m working in California [on the HBO Max pilot Ok Boomer], so I’m feeling better because I’m focused again and I’m actually doing what I do, but as far as Broadway is concerned, I’m cautious. Last year we were told by the powers that be that we would return in two weeks, then it was in June, then July, and it creates nothing but disappointment when we keep hearing this and it doesn’t happen. We were sent an email from our general manager the other day saying we were going into rehearsal in September and then opening in October. And I thought, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I guess what I’m saying is: Stop. Wait until we know we’re going to open before we keep getting these emails. It’s depressing when it doesn’t happen.
I personally don’t think that Company should come back in the Fall. I think that we should let the big guns open and let them work out all the kinks. You know, Wicked, Hamilton, Lion King, the ones that have been running, that have paid off and are in larger houses and can afford to play to a quarter or half a house. Let them lead the charge, and then let’s see what happens.
But I just don’t know how I feel, quite frankly. I mean, I am fully vaccinated, and I’m about to go onto the set in the studio, and last night we get a mass email saying somebody on our production has Covid. Contact tracing is in place, they are quarantining the people that have been around this person. But I said to my husband, Whoa, I’m fully vaccinated and I’m still scared! I don’t trust anything. I am fully vaccinated and I don’t trust anything. You’re talking to somebody who is so fucking gun shy at this point. I guess maybe I was born scared.
Christopher Fitzgerald I talk to my castmates from time to time, and one of our favorite things to talk about is, What’s it going to be like when we go back? Is it going to be hard? Is it going to be easy? Is it going to feel good? And I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s going to be a combination of gratitude and sadness, at least for a while.
One of the moments we talk about a lot is the show’s opening, probably the most dynamic moment in the show. Bobbie, the lead character, is coming home to an empty apartment, which is this small little box. The rest of us are all spreading across the stage, but throughout the opening number we all find our way inside that box, and then we all are moving around her, like this amoeba of her friends and her life. At one point in the music, we all snap our heads forward and start singing together, and as we sing together, the box starts to move downstage. The audience is unprepared for how close that box gets to them. They always cheer.
I just keep thinking about that moment. This idea that we’re all in this tiny little box as this company of actors, this company of Company. And we’re not going to have masks on, and we’re all going to be together, really close, singing about being a company, about friendship, all as we move forward, toward the audience.
Actors are survivors. We always have been. We’re familiar with not working, and with not being sure where or what our next six months will be. But this year has been so profound, this triple whammy of Trump and Covid and unemployment, all at the same time. I think we’re all going to be crying in that moment, in that little box, and I don’t think my tears are just going to be happy. I think they’re also going to be a release, you know? A release of this year.
— COMPANY (@CompanyBway) March 22, 2021