Reviewed: Stephen Sondheim’s Company with the New York Philharmonic

The audience of Stephen Sondheim’s Company with the New York Philharmonic at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD wasn’t quite certain how to behave. Were they watching a movie, or live theatre? Their confusion – and, to be honest, mine – stemmed from the dual identity of the film. Stephen Sondheim’s Company, after all, is actually an edited taping of a New York Philharmonic production from early April. It was presented as part of the orchestra’s spring gala and boasts a cast of headliners so enticing – Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, and Christina Hendricks, to name a few – that I was able to convince my boyfriend to willingly see a piece of musical theatre. The intriguing result of the project was an engaging film with the potential to democratize re-spun Broadway favorites.

Company is a relatively plot-less show focusing on the emotional journey of getting-older-but-staying-single Robert, played by a terrific Neil Patrick Harris. All of Robbie’s friends are married couples presenting a decidedly negative view of wedlock (the most appealing of which are Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton as a dorky, mutually critical pair at various stages of sobriety.) They encourage Robbie to find a wife while inadvertently demonstrating why he should stay single. What follows is a nuanced rumination on what it means to commit to a long-term relationship. The show culminates in Robbie’s realization that marriage isn’t so bad when he concludes that “alone is alone, not alive,” a money note line sung beautifully by Harris in the show’s moving ballad, “Being Alive.”

As a musical theatre maniac, I must admit that even I found it somewhat awkward to be confronted by stage conventions in a cinematic setting. In live theatre, for example, lines are delivered with much more gusto, and gestures are much more exaggerated. When watching a play, the viewer enters into a somewhat different silent contract than the movie-goer does. While play audiences are supportive and dynamic, movie audiences are disjointed and passive. Whereas theatre goers suspend belief, movie attendees expect realism. There was something mildly odd about the confrontation of bagged popcorn in my lap with pauses for applause on the screen. Attendees weren’t sure whether to clap after musical numbers, laugh out loud or even whether or not to give a standing ovation at the end. Although credits rolled over the curtain call, the audience seemed unsure whether or not it was kosher to leave while actors were taking their bows. While these questions lead to some discomfort for those wanting to be model audience members, they also highlighted the fact that it is quite possible to ignore the cinematic guise and imagine one is watching a live production. In this way, Broadway-quality experiences are more available to those outside of New York. While it is no replacement for a live show, seeing a production like Stephen Sondheim’s Company at AFI or E Street Cinema is a lot better than watching it on PBS.

The film itself sparkles – it is shot as unobtrusively as possible, in such a way as to encourage the viewer to maintain the presumption that they are watching theatre. It depends mostly on pan shots, and even when focused on specific characters, several more are in view – the way that a stage would look to someone who sees the whole thing and doesn’t have the luxury of a zoom lens. Neil Patrick Harris has pervaded the popular imagination as Doogie Howser and Barney Stinson, but actually has some serious Broadway credentials (he first came on my radar as part of a studio cast recording of Sondheim’s more obscure The Frogs and Evening Primrose about a decade ago, singing with just as much vocal butter as he brings to Company.) Patti LuPone plays a pitch-perfect brassy older friend, and Christina Hendricks is charming as a ditzy wrong-for-Robbie date.

There is a lot riding on how tenable the “filmed theatrical production” medium turns out to be. It has the potential to generate great interest in productions generally intended for those in the dramatic loop, particularly when such stars headline. For a city panned for its blasé theatre scene, films like this screening in Washington, DC have the definite potential to assuage the desires of local theatre fanatics. As much as I bitch about traveling outside of the District to Maryland, it is a hell of a lot simpler than schlepping all the way to New York.

Stephen Sondheim’s Company with the New York Philharmonic is playing in Washington, DC and Silver Spring, MD through June 19th. Showtimes are available here.

(Psst…E Street Cinema showings are sold out!)
(Psst…that is totally okay. AFI Center is worlds cooler anyway.)

-Natalie

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

One Response to “Reviewed: Stephen Sondheim’s Company with the New York Philharmonic”

  1. Great review, Natalie. I appreciated most your observation on the different expectations of theatergoers as compared with moviegoers, regarding the theatrical suspension of disbelief vs. cinematic realism. But I don’t get it. You’re supposedly amusical, but you’re obsessed with musical theater? You’re a web of contradictions, Natalie.

    In any case, if you ever do make it up to New York, we could definitely catch some live theater — musical or non-musical. The off-Broadway shows are much more affordable, and often just as good (though it’s good to read the reviews beforehand). I saw a version of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros in Brooklyn that was actually top-notch. But if the Philharmonic’s playing anything good, we could definitely check that out as well. I remember taking one of my ex-girlfriends to see them perform Chaikovskii’s 6th Symphony. Definitely in my top five all-time dates.

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