Stephen Sondheim’s in good ‘Company’ with Marianne Elliott

Stephen Sondheim has been a fan of director Marianne Elliott’s ever since he saw her production of “Saint Joan” in London at the National Theatre in 2007. Sondheim knows a great director when he sees one: Elliott went on to stage two of the most acclaimed plays of the past 50 years: “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

And so, when Elliott was in New York doing “Curious Incident,” Sondheim invited her to dinner at his East Side townhouse. It was just the two of them, and Sondheim regaled her with anecdotes, including the one about the time he was composing “Sweeney Todd” in the middle of the night and his next-door neighbor — Katharine Hepburn — banged on his window to tell him to keep it down.

That emboldened Elliott to ask if she could direct a production of “Company” with a woman in the role of Bobby, the perennial bachelor. Sondheim had doubts, but trusted her enough to let her do a workshop in London. She filmed it, sent him the tape and nervously waited by the phone. The call came, and he said, “This could work.”

The result was a critically acclaimed revival in London in 2018 that’s moving stateside to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Opening night is set for March 22 — Sondheim’s 90th birthday.

Everybody’s hoping he’ll be there, though they’re a little worried since a recent fall at his house in Connecticut forced him to miss the first rehearsal. He sent the cast a note saying they’d be in good hands because of Elliott and the script, by his late collaborator George Furth. No mention they’d be in good hands because, well, the score contains some of the best songs ever written for the theater — “Side by Side by Side,” “Being Alive” and, the one that made Elaine Stritch famous, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

When Elliott was putting together her London cast, she immediately knew whom she wanted for the Stritch role: Patti LuPone.

LuPone said no. “I’m not doing any more musicals,” she said. Once again, the video of the workshop came in handy. “I told her to please have a sherry and watch it,” Elliott says. Sherry probably isn’t LuPone’s tipple, as the British say, but she told Elliott: “This is going to be amazing.”

“Patti LuPone steals the show in glorious reimagining of ‘Company,’ ” proclaimed the Guardian newspaper.

LuPone is reprising the role on Broadway, joined by an American cast that includes Christopher Sieber, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jennifer Simard and, as Bobby (now Bobbie), Katrina Lenk, who won a Tony for “The Band’s Visit.”

Elliott and Sondheim discussed something that’s always been said about “Company”: The 35-year-old Bobby is a bachelor because he’s gay. Sondheim and Furth couldn’t be open about that in a Broadway musical in 1970, but it’s certainly a possibility.

But Elliott says that subject “goes away” when Bobby becomes Bobbie. “She’s 35 years old and she hasn’t wanted to compromise her career or her ambitions, so it actually makes sense that she is a single woman,” Elliott says.

Sondheim tweaked some of the lyrics and there’ve been some tweaks to Furth’s script. In the original, one of Bobby’s friends compares him to the Seagram Building. It’s not entirely clear why, though some have suggested that the famous Mies van der Rohe building on Park Avenue is elegant but opaque, like Bobby. Others have said it refers to the plaza in front of the building, which was a gay cruising ground in the ’60s and ’70s.

In any event, the lyric now compares Bobbie to the Chrysler Building.

“It’s elegant, beautiful, tall and glittering,” says Elliott, “and yet there is something cold about it. And that’s Bobbie.”

I’ll drink to that.

“Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” airs weekdays on WOR Radio 710.

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