I do believe that Company is an ensemble show, although that ensemble is comprised entirely of principals. I can only speak from my experience in this production and the directorial choices therein, but we are all recollections of our characters in Bobby’s head. He is processing his 35th birthday and trying to examine what it means for him. He does this by examining the closest relationships in his life and, in doing so it reveals how being challenged with the complexity of a true and loving relationship is the only way for him to move forward with his life. Ingeniously, Sondheim and Furth have separated the relationships into vignettes, whose impact as a group is only used sparingly and to great effect. The “birthday parties” at the beginning, middle, and end are the markers for the development of Bobby’s eventual enlightenment. We, the ensemble, are the driving force in the storytelling. That, to me, makes this an ensemble show.
We are the inciting incident with the first birthday party. We arrive and establish the routine of past years of birthdays, by intoning birthday greeting and platitudes. This presents Bobby’s dilemma, as he can’t seem wish for anything, this year brilliantly illustrated by his inability to blow out his birthday candles. We fade into the background and begin the number "Company," to show all the ways we pull Bobby’s attention and focus away from being alone. The stage is set, as it were.
We then head into the vignettes for the majority of the show. Each of the couples provide the audience with a picture of the couple but Bobby is left reactionary and undefined. That’s always been a criticism of the show but I believe his opaqueness is VERY intentional. Sarah, in the first scene teases him throughout about not saying anything about himself and always asking questions. The audience immediately gets to see Bobby’s avoidance of commitment because he adapts to the couples and very seldom shows his own hand. The second couple provides a backdrop of Bobby’s Peter Pan syndrome, where he keeps reliving the fun from his youth in a loop that his friends no longer want to revisit. Again, we are getting to know Bobby only from the way our stories are driving him toward crisis. The three girlfriends are introduced, and only further the disconnect between his present behavior and what he actually wants. I mean, WHAT DOES BOBBY ACTUALLY WANT?? That’s the main question we are addressing through the action of the entire play.
The third couple quickly addresses divorce and the fourth (this one’s me!) directly discusses the pressure of marriage, for us AND him, and the fight or flight response to that pressure. While we are working on our own conflict, Bobby is driven to the realization that getting married, for the sake of it, isn’t the answer either. This pushes him into the Act One finale, Marry Me A Little, where he tries to convince himself that he’s prepared to be married in small doses. We all arrive for another attempt the party and at making his birthday wish but he sees that this isn’t enough when the candles still refuse to be extinguished.
Act Two begins with the biggest “ensemble” number, in Side By Side. This song shows the audience the contrast between the way he wants to participate in his friends’ lives and the way he actually integrates, as the song takes a turn and goes off the rails, which shows him to be a perpetual third wheel. We get to see him delve more deeply into the way he views women, not from his line, but from simple April’s butterfly story. She paints the clearest picture of his carelessness thus far, by creating a parallel between herself and the poor wounded butterfly in her narrative. Once again, she is the driving force in the storytelling and he is a passenger.
Two more couples present Bobby with their marriages. Their incredibly complex and darker relationships push him out of his comfort zone and he finds himself having to reveal more of himself than he has been comfortable with. Joanne, in particular, pushes him so far, when she asks him to let her care for him he admits that he just wants to care FOR someone. Once again, we all arrive on the scene to challenge him and drive him to the existential anthem of "Being Alive." For the first time, Bobby is fully vulnerable and examining himself with ALL his walls down. We, at least his own psyche’s version of us, did that. He finally lets us all go, and in doing so, can FINALLY make his wish and blow out the candles. Our stories propel his ability to examine his own. That makes it pretty clearly an ensemble show… at least in my humble (ensemble) opinion.
Listen to our episode on ensemble musicals here.