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Revisiting ‘Company’ of Days Past : Original Cast, Creators of 1970 Musical Gather for Reunion Benefit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s among “the most revered and the least revived” of musicals, remarked Angela Lansbury.

She was referring to “Company,” the legendary 1970 show about a bachelor named Bobby and the company he keeps. Lansbury welcomed a crowd of more than 3,100 “Company” fans to a one-night, concert-style rendition of the score, sung by most of the original cast at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach on Saturday.

“Company” won seven Tonys and a scrapbook of praise for its sophistication of theme, tone and structure. It propelled composer Stephen Sondheim into the position he still holds as the American musical theater’s most acclaimed creative force. Sondheim, librettist George Furth and director Harold Prince accepted a fervent standing ovation from the crowd Saturday.

But despite its reputation, “Company” was not a giant hit, and it has never received a major revival. Now, though, it looks as if the talk of 1970 might become the talk of 1993.

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Most of the tickets to the Long Beach event were sold before the first ad ran, and the rest sold out on the same day as that ad. The event’s producer, Barry Brown, said he wants to stage a similar original-cast reunion in New York at the same theater where “Company” played. Meanwhile, in recent months a planned public-TV revival of “Company” was aborted only because of reported interest from a major Hollywood director in doing a feature film version. A documentary about the recording of the original cast album has been released. And a New York stage revival is said to be in the works.

Whatever shape “Company” now takes, however, it will be hard to top the Long Beach event for electricity.

“The emotional impact is almost like a seance,” said cast member Charles Kimbrough during rehearsals late last week.

“You can’t walk across the stage without being hugged three times,” observed Dean Jones. Jones was re-creating his performance as Bobby, a job that he left a month after the Broadway opening. He said he had quit because the issues that the show raised were so painful in the wake of his own divorce, but now he regrets “that I didn’t realize there was a larger issue--my responsibility to my fellow performers and to the people who came to see the show.”

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If his fellow performers resented him, however, all seemed forgiven in Long Beach. “There’s no question about it--Dean Jones is the best Bobby,” declared fellow cast member Elaine Stritch.

In fact, said Jones, the affection among the performers was so intense that he was concerned they might lose their edge. “We’ve all softened the work--we’re up there as ourselves, not in character.”

It’s true that the performers stopped to applaud each other after solos on Saturday. They shared the stage with the orchestra and were dressed in black tie and cocktail dresses--not in character. With George Hearn serving as narrator, much of the dialogue was cut, including references to a couple’s experiments with marijuana, which was cited as the most dated scene in the show in several of the pre-show interviews.

Considering all that, however, the cast re-enacted a surprisingly large chunk of Michael Bennett’s ground-breaking choreography (with Donna McKechnie doing a version of her solo dance number “Tick Tock”). And they sounded remarkably similar to their voices on the album.

Producer Brown said he had no idea how some of them, including Jones, would sound, when he requested their participation.

“Company” is “why I’m in the theater,” Brown recalled. He was so knocked out by “the craft, the expertise, the newness of it” that he “must have seen it a hundred times” during its original run. It helped that he was a friend of Larry Kert, who replaced Jones in the role of Bobby. Kert allowed Brown to observe from backstage.

When the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, which Brown now runs, needed an idea for a fund-raiser last summer, Brown called Sondheim and the relevant agents, then began contacting the actors. “No one hesitated,” he said.

Of the 14 original cast members, the only ones Brown couldn’t get were Merle Louise, who’s currently onstage in the Prince-directed “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in London, and the late Charles Braswell. Alice Cannon, Louise’s understudy and successor in 1970, took her part in Long Beach. Stanley Grover, Braswell’s first replacement, took his.

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Many of the cast members still live in or near New York, though Pamela Myers, who sang the score’s classic New York song, “Another Hundred People,” has lived in Cincinnati for the last three years after 15 years in Los Angeles.

A handful of the actors now live here. Two of them, Kimbrough and Beth Howland (best known as second bananas in “Murphy Brown” and “Alice,” respectively) are now an offstage couple. But true to Howland’s tongue-twisting song in the “Company” score, “I’m Not Getting Married Today,” they are not married.

Following the final number Saturday, Lansbury offered tributes to three men from the original production who have died of AIDS, while large portraits of the three were displayed to the audience.

The three were choreographer Bennett, actor Kert and production stage manager Fritz Holt, who later became Brown’s business partner and longtime companion. Though it wasn’t publicly mentioned, the actor who was originally offered the role of Bobby, Anthony Perkins, also died of AIDS.

The event benefited the Actors Fund of America AIDS Initiative and St. Mary’s Comprehensive AIDS Resource Program as well as Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Though final figures weren’t available, as much as $140,000 may have been raised. The ticket price range was $25-$150, though desperate ticket seekers outside the theater before the show offered twice the face value of the tickets--without much noticeable success.

Sondheim fan and math teacher Elias Shabot celebrated his imminent 40th birthday by flying up from his home in Mexico City for the program. Snagging autographs at the party after the show, he said it was worth the expense: “It was awesome. The feeling of love from both sides of the stage was too much.”

When Sondheim, Prince and Furth went up onstage to accept the applause, Jones stepped forward to ask them a few questions. “All we knew is we wanted to write another show together,” Sondheim said.

Asked if the characters were based on people he knew, Furth replied, “A couple of them are standing behind me,” apparently referring to Sondheim and Prince.

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Offstage, Prince said “Company” is “a terrific memory,” but he’s not personally interested in reviving it. There were reports that the creative team was never completely satisfied with the ending, which shows Bobby acknowledging his need for commitment to someone else. But before the show, Prince said he would not be tempted to alter the basic material, were he to stage it again. And after the show he said he had renewed faith that the show’s ending is “absolutely” the best choice.

If the talked-about feature film is made, it will be interesting to see if the Hollywood producers agree with that judgment. But Prince dismissed such talk with the words: “That’s somebody else’s business.”


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