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In Gay Company

With so many gays and lesbians in the theatre, and because of the subject matter of Company, there has been great debate over the years, particularly over the past year, about whether it is appropriate to inject a gay sensibility into Company. For the record, the show's creators, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth have never allowed making any of the characters in the show gay, and most musical theatre scholars agree there is absolutely nothing in the text of the show to indicate that Robert, the central character, is gay.

In fact, to make Robert gay, many people would argue, would greatly subvert the point of the show. As it stands now, Robert is afraid to marry any of the women he meets because he's terrified of the idea of serious commitment, of giving part of himself over to a lifetime partnership. He observes the marriages around him and initially sees only the bad side of committed monogamy. But if Robert were gay, he would be avoiding these women because he'd rather be with a man; and his fear of commitment would be a side issue, or might disappear altogether. The whole point of the show -- that being with someone is difficult, but being alone is worse -- would be lost.

Much has been said and written about whether or not. Company works in the 90s as well as it did in the 70s. Sondheim pundits are split on this issue, and have mostly agreed to disagree. Some directors still present the show as a 70s nostalgia piece; others place the action in the present (the script does not specify period). Despite a few dated references (what husband today could get away with saying "I want to know how MY money is being spent," as Harry does?), many of us believe the show stands the test of time quite well. But for a production set in the 90s, some directors would like to update more than just the clothes and electronic music. Some believe bringing the shows into the 90s requires the acknowledgement of the widespread openness of gays and lesbians. In a group of intellectual, wealthy New Yorkers, it's not at all hard to believe there might be a gay couple. In fact, since the show endeavors to present a smorgasbord of different kinds of relationships, adding a modern gay couple seems to directly support the themes of the show.

I recently directed a production of Company for New Line Theatre in St. Louis. One way we wanted to highlight the show's continued timeliness was to cast one of the five couples as a gay couple. Many people would argue that changing a character from straight to gay should be no different than changing him from white to black, a practice that is widely accepted. Particularly in this era of AIDS, many gay couples are as monogamous (if not more so) than straight couples. It's not the piece of paper from City Hall that makes a marriage. In fact, Company makes that point quite strongly, both with Amy and Paul, and with Peter and Susan. Robert doesn't learn over the course of the evening that he wants a marriage license; he learns he wants to make an emotional commitment to someone. Company is about sustaining a serious, long term commitment in our increasingly mechanized and depersonalized society. Just as Company couldn't have been written in the 30s, it can't be produced in the 90s without an acknowledgement of the changes that marriage has undergone since the 70s.

We sincerely believed it would be a cop-out for us to do this show in 1995 and yet ignore the very visible and significant gay community in our country today. It's important for us all to realize that gay relationships are no different from straight relationships. Do we dare say that Robert couldn't learn about love and commitment from a gay couple, that only straight couples can demonstrate those traits sufficiently? Company is a fascinating and timely musical that says so much about the way we love in today's world.

Though some people would argue that throwing a gay couple into the Company mix would change the dynamics of some of the relationships, this would be the case no more than changing the race of characters, which no one would dare object to at this point in time. When companies produce Hello, Dolly! with an African-American woman as Dolly Levi, certainly that is changing many dynamics in the show as well. An African-American woman couldn't possibly do what Dolly Levi did in 1879 New York; she wouldn't have had the opportunities, the access, and she certainly wouldn't have been served at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. So isn't changing Dolly's race tinkering with the characterization and with the logic of the plot? If Thornton Wilder, who created Dolly, had originally envisioned her as a black woman, he would have written the role very differently. Yet no one today would tell a black woman she can't play Dolly.

Sondheim, Furth, and director Harold Prince did not originally intend for gay or lesbian characters to be a part of Company, but as the world changes around us, so must our view of works of art. Company is twenty-five years old, and in many ways is timeless. Must it be forced to remain mired in the sensibilities of the 70s, or can it be allowed to speak to us in the 90s? A spin around your television dial will show you gay characters popping up on sitcoms and dramas all over network and cable television. As more and more gays and lesbians come out across the country, it has become impossible to ignore them. They're a part of our national fabric, and as a quintessentially American musical, why can't Company reflect that?

Our request to cast one couple as two men or two women was denied, so we did not cast the show that way. The show still felt remarkably contemporary despite its age. Yet I have to wonder how much better it might have spoken to our audiences had we made that small change. It's widely accepted now that a director can cast an actor without regard for race, yet ignoring gender and sexual orientation is not yet fair game. I wonder if it will be in twenty years. And I wonder what future generations will think of the drama we afforded what should be a trivial issue.

To paraphrase Robert in Company, we're ready now.

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