Company is one of my favorite musicals. As a big Sondheim fan, I can comfortably say it’s my favorite of his works.
One of my favorite things about it is the fact that I’m still not sure I get it. In fact, it seems to change in meaning every time I listen.
The first time I saw it, I knew next to nothing about it. I had previously learned the song “Another Hundred People” as a potential audition song for a show once. I listened to the title song on the way to the performance in some half-hearted effort to get the basic lay of the land and recognized “Not Getting Married Today” from the Glee cast cover. The rest was a mystery. I was riveted, and loved it, and at the end I said, “so this is a musical about a guy whose friends are fucking with his head and ruining his life.”
Then I drove home and cried inconsolably while listening to “Being Alive” because I was majorly depressed and incredibly lonely at the time and some part of my brain connected this song about love to the friends I was yearning for, and it broke me. “Make me alive / make me confused / mock me with praise / let me be used / vary my days / but alone is alone / not alone…”
I listened to it on and off for a few weeks after that. I was working out my interpretation of it then— his friends aren’t fucking with him, they’re trying to help him. It’s a show about friendship. Sort of. But also it’s not. And his friends totally are fucking his life up, sometimes, accidentally. Actually, do his friends even like him? Okay, scratch everything.
Right around this time I started dating a girl. She was really sweet and nice, and I thought I could totally have a relationship with her. I kind of wasn’t sure. All the pieces were there, and I even enjoyed hanging out with her, but I just never felt the way I always thought you were supposed to feel about people you’re dating. I was listening to the show, and I thought, this is what the show’s really about, throwing yourself into relationships, giving it a try, letting love happen. “Hey, buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be!”
I gave the relationship a try and we broke up two months later.
So I listened to it some more, thought about it some more. I noticed the recurring theme of duality in the show. I think I’m onto something with that one for sure. I went through the show song by song and broke down how each song was like a self-contained lesson in polar opposites. In the title song, Bobby loves his friends, but also his friends are suffocating him, and he says marriage is what life’s all about, but he loves the “no strings, good times” of good old-fashioned friendship. In “The Little Things you do Together”, relationships are fun but also hellholes of arguing and the best thing you can do is get a divorce. “Sorry-Grateful” is like an entire thesis on the subject: “You’re sorry-grateful / regretful-happy … which has nothing to do with / all to do with her”. I could break this down for literally every song in the show, but I’ll save the words— just think about it yourself, if you’re familiar. Some of the songs are directly foiling each other, too. “Have I got a Girl for You” directly contrasts with “Someone is Waiting”— one’s about setting Bobby up with a lady and how marriage sucks, and the other is about how Bobby doesn’t want set up with a lady and there must be a perfect one out there to marry. The act 1 finale, “Marry me a Little” is a foil to the act 2 finale, “Being Alive”— while the former is about how Bobby is ready for a relationship as long as it’s easy-breezy, the latter is about being ready for a relationship as long as someone is there to “put you through hell” and be there for you, as much as you’re there for them. And then there’s the characters themselves. Do his friends hate him or love him? Who knows! Do they hold him in contempt or pity him? Hard to say! Is Bobby happy with them? Absolutely, and also absolutely not. The show at its core is a contradiction: It’s a story about love without being a love story.
Pleased with my analytic efforts, I kept those thoughts in my back pocket and left them to stew a bit longer. I finally gave the female version a listen. Bobby becomes Bobbie, bachelor becomes bachelorette. I loved the concept, but was turned off when I actually started listening. Seemingly a small change- but it changes the entire show. I was unsure if I liked this change. The issues became entirely different. This is especially clear in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” where a brief dialogue break wherein the female singers would shower Bobby with impassioned but largely trivial insults became instead a trio of male singers showering Bobbie with cries like “that time of the month?” and “dirty feminist!” A new song “Tick Tock” adds to Bobbie’s plate the complex layer of running out of time to have children and start a family. “Have I got a Girl for You” describes a potential hook-up to Bobby as “dumb”, and “Have I got a guy for You” describes the same (genderswapped) hook-up to Bobbie as “smart”. The descriptions of what Bobby envisions in the perfect woman is different from how Bobbie describes her perfect man in “Someone is Waiting”. Bobby: “My blue-eyed Sarah, warm Joanne / Sweet Jenny, loving Susan / Crazy Amy.” Bobbie: “My loyal Harry, loving Paul / Cute Jamie, happy Peter / Handsome Larry”. The only similarity between the two, notably, is the word “loving”. These differences are small, but manage to create something totally different. Call me dramatic, but it felt like an entire other show— all of these changes had implications I wasn’t sure how to parse.
Shortly after this development, something else happened in my romantic life. I had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with a guy. Super sweet, getting out of a bad situation, had a ton of love to give. And while I wanted to jump in, something was stopping me— some gnawing instinct saying “this isn’t quite right.” It’s not that I wasn’t into it, I was, and I wanted the relationship. I was coming out of a bad situation of my own, too, and I wanted the comfort and camaraderie and affection and yet something was holding me back.
One night, while I was turning the prospect of this relationship over and over in my mind, I took the long way home from a rehearsal and listened to the female version again.
And suddenly this version made sense.
It was totally different, but also it wasn’t. In fact, in print, very few of the situations are different at all. The obvious difference lies in the gender swapping, but the rest are hard to verbalize beyond “men’s problem’s” and “women’s problems”. Ironically, the problems are basically exactly the same. Bobby: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. Bobbie: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. They’re the exact same problems, but shaded so slightly differently. Bobby and Bobbie both convince their Steward(ess) significant others to stay in “Barcelona”, and both are shocked when they succeed, and both cry out “oh god!” when they realize they’re stuck with their hookup another day. And yet, these situations feel so markedly different. I think of the women I know who get stuck with lame dudes, and it feels so different from the men I know who get stuck with lame girls— perhaps I’m lingering on this point too long, but it’s just so hard to explain these nuances. There’s something to be said about what women expect from men in relationships and what men expect from women in relationships, but when you get down to that, too, the answers are more or less the same on cold, unfeeling paper: love, sex, happiness, comfort. Yet, every instance of these things are slightly different in concept to these two genders, just by virtue of what it means to live and be raised as one of these two genders.
It’s totally different. And yet, really, it’s not that different at all. We all want the same things, but we don’t, really. There’s that duality idea again.
Company, about Bobby, made me decide to leap into a relationship with a girl. Company, about Bobbie, made me reconsider leaping into a relationship with a guy. Maybe I just knew better the second time around– or maybe I missed out big time.
I’m still not sure I get Company. I think the easiest, and most complete interpretation is this: life is hard. Romance is hard. Shit is weird and love is complicated. Your friends are great and also are what is holding you back. Finding the right person is almost impossible and even when you do find them, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s still better than being alone, unless it’s not. Trying to weigh all the pros and cons of everything will leave you in the dust, so give in to the unknown. But when you give into the unknown in romance you’ll probably end up screwing some less-than-perfect people, but that’s kind of okay too. This seems like an anticlimactic point to arrive at, but it’s truthful, and it’s real. I don’t know if my life experiences actually changed my interpretation, or if this was coincidence entirely, but they felt connected, somehow. Maybe this is a show you just need to live a while to really understand.
I don’t know if I really get it at all, but I love it.
I guess that’s alright. That’s pretty much the show in a nutshell, anyway.