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'Great Performances' goes inside Stephen Sondheim's groundbreaking 'Company'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Tonight on PBS, "Great Performances" presents the premiere of "Keeping Company With Sondheim." It's about how Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1970 musical called "Company," based on stories by George Furth, was adapted to the current Broadway version, pivoting on a gender switch that rewrites the central role as a woman instead of a man. But it's also about how this new "Company" survived the pandemic, New York shutdown and what this Sondheim musical and Sondheim himself means to the city and to Broadway and to musical history.

More than 50 years ago, "Company" burst onto the Broadway scene. It was 1970. And lyricist Stephen Sondheim, after a string of stellar collaborations on such musicals as "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," wrote both the lyrics and music for "Company." It demanded attention and deserved it.


STEPHEN SONDHEIM: "Company" is the first full-blown score I wrote that really - that's me and nobody else.

BIANCULLI: Back then, D.A. Pennebaker made a fabulous documentary about the making of the "Company" original cast album recording. It's still famous and still captivating for capturing the anguished singing of Dean Jones, who starred in the leading role of the unattached New York bachelor Bobby and who left the show shortly after it opened. That documentary also is riveting for showing how Elaine Stritch agonized to record her showstopping solo "The Ladies Who Lunch" and how with time running out on the recording session, she finally nailed it.

For this new "Great Performances" offering focusing on the reworked production of "Company," documentary director Andrew Douglas isn't interested in the recording of the cast album. He's got other things in mind, and they're all newsworthy and worthwhile - how Bobby, with a Y, played by a man in all previous versions, morphs into Bobbie with an I-E, a 35-year-old single woman played by Katrina Lenk; how this new "Company" shut down in previews just as the pandemic swept through Broadway and how it managed to come back more than 18 months later and how Sondheim himself lived to see it but only barely. Lots of interviews - some vintage, most of them fresh - put all three of those stories in perspective. Sondheim, in old clips, explains what made "Company" so groundbreaking at the time.


SONDHEIM: "Company" is about a single moment in a man's life - literally one, maybe three seconds in which something snaps inside of his head. And he reviews his life to that moment - the business of exploding a moment like that, the business of a group of memories forming your story as opposed to a plot as in "Follies."

BIANCULLI: Producer Chris Harper wondered, what if the show was about a single moment in a woman's life, and took that idea to Marianne Elliott, who had directed "War Horse" and was intrigued by how conventional "Company" was not.


MARIANNE ELLIOTT: It breaks all the rules. It's not really what a musical should be. No, it doesn't have a narrative. There's no narrative. There's no story. It doesn't have a beginning and a middle and an end. It doesn't have an I-want number. It doesn't have an ensemble.

BIANCULLI: As a necessary step before gaining Sondheim's approval, she mounted a workshop version featuring a female Bobbie and some other changes and filmed it and sent that film to Sondheim. In an interview where she and Sondheim were seated next to each other, he recalls his somewhat surprised reaction.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Bobbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Bobbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Bobbie, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Bobbie, honey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Boo-boo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Bobbie, darling.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Bobbie, we've been trying to call you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Bobbie, sugar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Bobbie, sweetie.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) You could drive a person crazy. You could drive a person mad.

SONDHEIM: I looked at it, and I thought, my goodness, it works, meaning I was able to understand what she was doing. They had a very young cameraman there. And when it was all over, he said, tell me about this show. And so when I told him about it, he said, you mean it worked with a man?

ELLIOTT: (Laughter) Yes.

SONDHEIM: That's the highest compliment she can get.

BIANCULLI: Once the production is a go, the rest of this documentary just holds on tight and tries to capture everything that happens, however unexpected. We see the revival take shape and Katrina Lenk take on the same classic "Being Alive" number as Dean Jones had half a century before.


DEAN JONES: (As Bobby, singing) Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair, to ruin your sleep.

STEVE ELMORE: (As Paul) That's true.

KATRINA LENK: (As Bobbie, singing) Someone to need you too much, someone to know you too well, someone to pull you up short, to put you through hell.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You see what you look for.

BIANCULLI: "Keeping Company With Sondheim" interviews drama critics, current cast members and others, all of whom talk affectionately and perceptively about "Company" the musical, its central character and Sondheim himself. Lin-Manuel Miranda tells stories that might bring you close to tears. And so will this program's climax, which features director Elliott stepping onstage to welcome the theater audience back for the long-delayed opening night of this new "Company." In that audience is Stephen Sondheim.


ELLIOTT: It is truly overwhelming to be back here at the Bernard Jacobs Theater after 631 days.


ELLIOTT: We do need to thank certain people - the crew, the cast, the musicians, the most amazing stage management team, the creative team, everybody who's worked on the show, George Furth for his madcap wild imagination.


ELLIOTT: And, of course, to our most generous collaborator of all, Stephen Sondheim.


BIANCULLI: The documentary ends with a postscript, noting that Sondheim died in his sleep 11 days later after celebrating his 91st birthday. A birthday celebration is, of course, at the heart of "Company," too. And to all fans of "Company," Stephen Sondheim and musical theater, this "Great Performances" special makes for a perfect gift.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, for Memorial Day, country music star Tim McGraw. He wins Grammys and sells out concerts, and he's an actor. He and his wife, Faith Hill, star in the Paramount+ TV Western series "1883," playing a married couple making their way in a wagon train up the Oregon Trail. It's a prequel to the series "Yellowstone." I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Hertzfeld and Tina Kalakay (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.