Editors Note: Company, the beloved 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, has long been thought by many theater aficionados as, if not a perfect work, at least unimprovable, a masterwork in an unparalleled catalogue.
But in 2016, British director Marianne Elliott had an idea — a series of ideas, actually — that would reimagine Company for a 21st century audience and challenge the 20th century’s towering stage musical genius to reconsider his approach. The central character of Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor, would become Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman. Another character, Amy, an archetypal nervous bride who sings one of the musical’s most memorable songs (“Getting Married Today”), would be gender-switched to Jamie, a gay man undergoing the same panicked jitters in a world newly liberated by gay marriage.
Those and other changes in characters would reflect nearly 50 years of sea-change attitude shifts in gender conventions, sexuality and power dynamics and lead to a revised Company that would transfix audiences on London’s West End in 2018 and, three years later, Broadway. Today, Elliott’s Broadway revival of Company stands nominated for nine 2022 Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical; Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role/Musical (Matt Doyle, who plays Jamie); Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role/ Musical for both Patti LuPone, who plays Joanne, and Jennifer Simard, as Sarah; Best Scenic Design/Musical, Best Lighting Design/Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Sound Design/Musical; and for Elliott, Best Direction/Musical.
In this Deadline exclusive, some key early moments in the production’s development are chronicled in never-before-released email exchanges between Elliott and Sondheim, and demonstrate moments of inspiration, reluctance, collaboration, adventure and ultimately joy as the Company of 1970 became the Company of today.
Letters and Lyrics © Stephen Sondheim. Used by permission.
Marianne Elliott, 2022: Looking back now over these emails between Stephen and I is, of course, very emotional. We have been through so much since we first started talking about the idea in 2016. And Steve is no longer here.
I hope this correspondence gives an insight into what a truly great collaborator he was. How open and generous he was and how he really embraced the idea of making this piece new — for an an audience today. He was honest about how he might have felt cut off from the modern take in some ways but never closed down the suggestions. He was always so respectful of the process as long as we could maintain the spirit of the show — and, crucially, the original dialogue by George Furth.
I am shocked in some cases as to how bold I was with my suggestions. I mean there is one email where I am actually sending Steve some lyric ideas!! But he took it all in good humour. Asking my permission if it were OK if he “fiddled with them!” I guess he knew I was so excited by the process. That is one of the things I can also feel coming off the page — the excitement, the buzz of creating something new. And with Stephen Sondheim — the greatest of all time.
These emails are just a few over the course of the past few years; from the very beginning in 2016 when we first approached Steve if we could try a workshop of the show with a female “Bobby,” to casting for the London production.
I have also included a series of emails which show the progression of the idea of turning AMY into JAMIE. This was something that I did not consider until very late in the process. I hope it shows how open and alive we both were to the process. And Steve had the foresight to see that JAMIE singing “Not Getting Married” could “stop the show.” He had that gut instinct and he was proved right.
Looking back I just can’t help feeling how lucky and honoured I was to get this shot of working “side by side” with him. Memories to treasure forever.
AUGUST 24, 2016
(These emails were just before we went into the first workshop in London. So they are really early thoughts and ideas. We rehearsed for only a few days and then we filmed the presentation which we sent to Steve. I was undertaking — like I always do — lots of what I call “prep” where I lock myself away for a while to obsessively work on the script. To be able to converse with Steve was incredibly helpful in enabling me to formulate my ideas for this production. – ME, 2022)
Stephen Sondheim: Re: Have I Got a Guy For You?
I’m about to tackle “Someone is Waiting.” If I can solve it, we may have to change the names of a husband or two.
Do you believe that Bobbie has the same kind of yearning attraction for the husbands that Bobby had for the wives? I’m having trouble thinking of her that way, though I know there’s nothing we can do about it, given this song. But then, one of the troubles I’m having is that I don’t really know today’s women — all my woman friends are from Bobby’s generation. I’m blindly following your take on them, since you’re one of the tribe.
Marianne Elliott: Hi. I think maybe it might help to imagine this song as Bobbie thinking she might have missed the boat on marriage. She hasn’t realised this so concretely before. All these lovely friends of hers, these men she’s close to, that she’s known for years, and she loves, are taken.
Maybe it’s worth thinking of her feelings as a deep yearning through love, less of a sexual desire. More about warmth, safety, reliability. Real love compared to the crude sex that the women have just been singing with “Have I got a guy for you.”
The scene with Jenny and David has just gone sour at the end. Clearly they think she should be married. And they push her to a place of thinking that maybe she really should be married. The wives then sing ‘Guy for you’ and are a bit crude and pressurised about what men she should now sleep with. Clearly for their enjoyment.
So she reacts against them and starts thinking, well, maybe there’s someone real out there for her. And maybe she can start allowing herself to think that way.
Maybe there’s someone she can be as close to as she is with her male friends. So not another man that she just has sex with.
Maybe she should have married David or Harry or Peter. Maybe she feels there was a moment when she really could have done.
Does that help at all??
Stephen Sondheim: As far as Bobbie’s feelings go, why isn’t she married? The 1970 Bobby was commitment-phobic. Is that Bobbie’s problem? Is she capable of loving? Has she ever been in love? Does she have the same remoteness that Bobby had?
As for her feeling close to the men, there’s nothing in the text that supports this. George subtly indicated Bobby’s closeness to the wives in numerous semi-flirtatious ways, and it was clear that the wives all had, in their various ways, a thing for him. This is not true of the husbands – in the script, anyway, although of course they can play some sort of subtext.
I’ve been thinking of changing the title of the song to “Someone is Out There,” to give it a resonance of aggressiveness (i.e., action) rather than passivity. What do you think?
Marianne Elliott: Mmm interesting about the title for the song. But ‘Someone is waiting’ as a line really works. Yes, I suppose it’s passive, but isn’t that the point? She can’t make an active decision really until ‘Being Alive.’ This, perhaps, is less a song about action and more about yearning. As you have suggested in the past.
As far as Bobbie not being married, she’s totally commitment-phobic! That still utterly works. And I honestly think it’s common. She may have been in love. Though, I actually doubt it. She’s terrified of compromising her life. And of being hurt. She’s capable. But she has to get there though, through the whole show. I think that other characters see her as ‘remote’ because she’s commitment-phobic, but also because that’s how they read her not being into them!
I think she’s close to the men. As she is to the women. They’re close. The men have a secret penchant for her — indicated in them singing ‘Poor Baby.’ And there is subtext played overtly every time she tells one of the men ‘you’re the one I should have married’
Sorry to email. I’m out at dinner. Shall I call when I get home? Loving this though too!
AUGUST 26, 2016
(This was the night we finished the workshop — you can sense how excited I was feeling. Very unlike me! But I remember feeling so buzzy. – ME, 2022)
Marianne Elliott: Hi there Steve,
It went brilliantly!
Even I say that. And I am never positive. Or rarely. Usually I don’t allow myself that cos my motto is always “there’s more work to do.”
It feels good to me. Especially after 4 days of work only. It feels now. It feels current. It feels like it has a lot to say still. It feels exciting. Very exciting.
There’s one moment I have an idea for. But we can chat about that when you’ve seen it.
One funny anecdote: the camera guy — sanguine, techy, young, very male. Quiet throughout. Focused. You know, a techy. Said at the end “good Luck. It’s going to be great. I really enjoyed it. Is it a new musical?” One of us explained the history and the iconic status of the piece, and he said, very drily “Bobbie a man? But how could that work?”
The response from others in the room was extremely positive. But, the main thing I was worried about, was what I genuinely felt, myself. And I’ll worry about what you think on the day you view it.
I loved it
Relieved. Grateful. Happy. And buzzing.
AUGUST 27 2016
(These emails show the journey we went on from changing Amy to Jamie — both of us certain at the beginning that this was not something we thought we wanted to do…Funny how things evolve… – ME, 2022)
Stephen Sondheim: Well, congratulations! And “response from others?” Did you have an audience? How many? Friends? Strangers?
You must be exhausted, so I won’t disturb you, but do give me a call and tell me about the “moment” you have in mind.
And get some sleep, although I realize this email will arrive with the lark.
Marianne Elliott: Hi Steve,
I’m oﬀ up to Manchester today on the train (oh the glamour). I’ll try and call you when we get there.
Two of the people were from my own Company — so they’d be part of putting the show on, if it were to go: Chris Harper and Nick Sidi. Two of my ‘friends’ came too – theatre bods. Everyone unequivocally loved it. It was a very very positive response. But I was trying not to hear that too much. I know workshops can be a happy clappy aﬀair — everyone loves everyone else etc, and so I just wanted to hear the voices in my own head (although of course it’s wonderful if others are enthusiastic! Who am I kidding?).
At the end of the first half Bobbie asks Amy to marry her. Now, I think that this works. It’s clear (and here I did check with other observers) that she’s doing it out of a sort of desperation and loneliness. She means it in the moment, but it’s not at all considered. And Amy treats it as ridiculous, which of course it is really.
Bobbie is not gay, she is just looking for a solution to her problem and she sees that Amy needs one too. And women do marry women after all. So, she thinks, why the hell not? She wants to be ‘left alone’ and so does Amy. She puts two and two together and makes five. And it’s full of stupidity and pain when, of course, it’s rejected. And Amy’s line re “you have to marry somebody, not just SomeBODY” is very very effective.
Or Amy is a gay man. I can hear you wince from here. I know, but bear with me a moment….. There’s positives to this: a single woman in New York, would have gay male friends. It doesn’t quite ring true that she doesn’t.
And Bobbie asking her gay male friend to marry her is not at all that shocking or strange. Yet it would be still full of the ridiculous impulsiveness.
But it means that the very iconic scene and song of Amy’s is changed to a man singing it. Mmm. I need to think about that one.
I feel the whole thing works SO BRILLIANTLY as Bobbie as a woman, that there’ll be a solution, that we’re happy with, for this one moment.
What are your thoughts?
Anyway, you’ll see what I mean when you watch it. It’s being edited now and will be sent to you hopefully end of next week?
Much love, and I’ll try calling from sunny Manchester,
Stephen Sondheim: I’ve just spoken to you, but I’m sending what I said to you anyway.
I think the way to play the “Marry me, Amy” scene is that Bobbie is making a proposal not for any sexual reason but so that, as she says, the world will leave them alone. I think it’s important that we leave homosexuality out of the show entirely, as too many people think that’s what it’s about (“Bobby’s a closet case,” they aver), which was never for an instant our intention.
Other thoughts (not spoken over the phone):
I think we should leave Amy and Paul as they are. Moreover, if Amy’s a man, the song goes out the window.
Looking forward to seeing the epic,
MAY 4, 2018
(This was on the eve of rehearsals for the London run — as we were actually in casting for the show. – ME, 2022)
Marianne Elliott: Hi Steve. OK you’ll need to be sitting down for this one. And preferably holding a drink!
As you know, we did a huge amount of auditioning this week. In another email are my requests for those I feel we should cast. It was a long old haul and not easy. Mainly because I needed to find not only great voices (thankfully Joel was with me in the room and worked them hard) but also great actors, BUT ALSO those that could feel they were contemporaries of mine. Modern. This is possible, as proved, with George Furth’s writings, but not to all (ahem).
I have to say my big big sticking point was Amy. We saw a lot of lovely ladies. Some who could sing really well. Some who could act really well. Some who could be funny (essential). Some who felt modern. But it was rare rare rare to find all of the above in one person! And even when we got close, I just couldn’t get excited. I just felt slightly dead inside. I just couldn’t understand it. I finally figured that it was because they still felt like they were very much of a period. Oooff.
So, I dared to do something bold….
I dared to look under a forbidden stone again….and I dared risking the rage of everyone by suggesting that we just get a friend to workshop something for me for an hour. Secretly. Quietly. Just to see.
A male friend.
So we workshopped the idea that the character of Amy would be a gay man. Now I KNOW I KNOW, I had said it wouldn’t work. You had said it wouldn’t work. I had tried it in the past and thought it wouldn’t work.
But my niggling little stomach instinct just wouldn’t shut up, so I had to explore it further.
So I asked a mate, to come in and try it out for me. He had 24 hours to look at the script and the song. So it is rough as fuck (as the English colourfully say) but I have to say I absolutely LOVED it. I mean it, I was prepared to be utterly skeptical. I wanted to be proved that it simply, categorically, totally wouldn’t work. I didn’t want it to work. It would be so much easier if it didn’t work!
But it did. And on so many levels:
It felt very very very now. Without fundamentally changing the scene. All the existing dialogue for Amy felt like a gay man speaking now. It felt like a lot of contemporary gay male friends I know. We adjusted none of the text. None. Other than the one line about the funny dress. Which is easily cut.
Obviously, however, it does have implications on the lyrics because it can’t be “today is for Amy” (Today is for Jamie??) And the Soprano lines would have to change. But we did change them to the following dummy lyrics below just to see:
BLESS THIS DAY, FINALLY IT’S TRUE:HE CAN MARRY YOU. THE HEART LEAPS UP TO BEHOLD THIS GOLDEN DAY.
TODAY IS FOR JAMIE.JAMIE, THE BEST MAN THAT I’VE EVER KNOWN – I’LL CHERISH AND I’LL KEEP YOU, I’LL HONOR YOU FOREVER. TODAY IS FOR JAMIE, MY HUSBAND, AND MINE ALL ALONE. [SOON I’LL HAVE YOU FOR MY OWN.]
BLESS THIS DAY, SUDDENLY IT’S TRUE:HE CAN MARRY YOU. THE HEART SINKS DOWN AND FEELS DEAD THIS DREADFUL DAY.
BLESS THIS GROOM, TOTALLY INSANE,SLIPPING DOWN THE DRAIN, AND BLESS THIS DAY IN OUR HEARTS, AS IT STARTS TO RAIN.
Attached is a PDF of the sheet music in case you wanted to see how it scans with the music.
Other than this I felt the song really came alive. Really. And made me laugh. And sympathise. And see his predicament and again, it just felt now. As did the scene.
I have included below a link to some very very rough footage of the song. Have a look and do ask Mary Pat and your partner and Rick for input too.
The wonderful thing about it was also that the marriage proposal REALLY worked. Bobbie was asking her best friend, her gay male best friend, to marry her, to shut everyone up. And I know that’s a thing among women to think that if they never get married they might have a laughing joke with their gay friend that they’ll marry them instead!And at the end of the scene, when the proposal went sour, it made Bobbie feel so utterly rejected, and so sad, and so humiliated actually. That she could have ever thought that might work! Beautifully painful. And a good catapult into Bobbie’s next song.
When it’s two women and a marriage proposal it is one of the moments of the show that is not really working. We could maybe make it work but only by adding some lines. That are NOT George Furth’s. And that worries me. Because I think the joy of this switch is that it works with the book AS IT IS.
But the main thing is that I was tingling all over with excitement. This was our first go at exploring that character in this way, but it still felt like the potential was there — it was huge!”
When casting the “Christophers” in ‘Curious Incident’ [Ed. Note: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time] I had to only go on instinct. I was never going to see the character right there in front of me in a reading or an audition. They are too complex for that. But I had to have a strong instinct that I could get them there. And I really really feel that I can do this with this.
Do look at the tapes. If you can see a way around these lyric changes then I really honestly think it is worth doing this. I’d be so excited about it! Much love and happy drinking!
MAY 5, 2018
Stephen Sondheim: OK you’ll need to be sitting down for this one. And preferably holding a drink.
I love it. It helps to bring the show up to date, but still offers the actor a spectacular chance to stop the show, which is always desirable for a musical (I haven’t watched the mp3 you sent yet, for fear it might discourage me), and it makes Bobbie’s proposal to Jamie or whomever believable, and touching.
The idea of your dummy lyrics is on the nose, but I’d like to fiddle with them, if you don’t mind. And I’ll look at the voice ranges, too.
P.S.; I’m, halfway through “Side By Side By Side,” which is trickier to tweak than it looks. And I gave a couplet that might startle you a bit, but I figure that’s what you go for. I’ll let it marinate overnight and send it to you tomorrow or Sunday.
And of course lyric fiddle away!!
MAY 29 2018
Stephen Sondheim: Remind me why you switched genders between David and Jenny.ss
Marianne Elliott: Well now, This is layered answer, and forgive me if I am a bit tactless.
I felt reading the book, that it was very much of its time. Especially the sexual politics. Which have moved on so very much since then. And the fact that all the women were kooky, in charge of the domestics and kids, and highly wired / neurotic. This is not how women are depicted nowadays. Thank the Lord. As we are not all like that.
No criticism of George Furth. None at all. He was writing for his age. And a lot of his writings (as I go through all his other plays) are amazing me with his skill.
So, switching David and Jenny, and also Susan and Peter — well, mixed things up a bit. In a good way. And made the whole thing modern! Surreptitiously. It meant the women (some of them) had more of a voice, the men were very involved with the kids (as modern men are) and in David and Jenny, it meant the man, for once, was kooky, or funny neurotic, and the woman a bit more experienced and sanguine. This does happen today. I know several couples like this.
And then it brought out the passive aggressive side of Jenny if she switched lines when deciding that no more weed should be taken (cos Bobbie and David enjoying it together is a bit too much) — something that is very pointed in early drafts of Furth’s versions of this scene).
Hope this makes sense?
MAY 30, 2018
Stephen Sondheim: It never occurred to me that the women in the show were all of a dismissable type and that the men were at worst quirky and at best strong. I’ll try to rewrite “Poor Baby” to reflect these new characters (new to me, that is), but please be sharp-eyed about anything that seems psychologically wrong in the gender-switched sections and attitudes. I’ll be sending you the lyric later tonight (I hope).
P.S. I did tell you whom George based Jenny and David on, yes? – s
Marianne Elliott: Oh who did George base Jenny and David on?
I notice in an earlier version Jenny takes her top off! Interesting!
Stephen Sondheim: Wait for it:
Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. George gave her her first (and maybe last) joint. Without David’s knowledge. In a parked car outside the Selznick mansion.