One of the signatures of Signature Theatre is Stephen Sondheim. Almost from its inception, works by Sondheim have been a hallmark of the Arlington-based company’s seasonal output. When Signature opened their former theatre space in a converted garage along Four Mile Run, Company was the first production Schaeffer directed.
Now, twenty years later, Signature occupies a new facility in the heart of ShirlingtonVillage and Schaeffer is once again directing Company, his first Sondheim show in several years.
Company, with a score and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, opened on Broadway in 1970, directed by the legendary Hal Prince introucing Sondheim’s award-winning score with such standouts as “Being Alive,” “Side By Side,” “Another Hundred People” and “Ladies Who Lunch.”
Schaeffer sat down with me during the final week of dress rehearsals to talk about returning to Company after 20 years.
Jeffrey Walker: This is your first Sondheim show since Sweeney Todd three years ago and your adventure with Follies, which went from the Kennedy Center to Broadway and Los Angeles. What’s it like getting back to Sondheim?
Eric Schaeffer: It’s great. It’s like visiting an old friend, his music and lyrics are just so powerful.
I did this show 20 years ago, which was the first show we did in the garage. And I always said I wanted to do Company again to redeem myself because the first production we did of it wasn’t that good, I think. At that time it was a lot of things: All our efforts were on opening the garage and getting the building ready. So it has been great to be able to go back and do the show and get to do a production like I really, really want to do. It’s been terrific.
And I surmise it’s a boon being able to do the show in such a wonderful space as the Max.
The space is so much more conducive to how we’re doing the show this time around. It just feels right and it sounds great. We just did the sitzprobe [seated musical rehearsal] today, which was fantastic. It’s really exciting and it’s got a cast of great Washingtonians, it’s so great seeing them on the stage doing their thing.
As for your cast, you have three real life couples (Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson, Tracy Lynn Olivera and Evan Casey and Erin Driscoll and James Gardiner) performing in a musical which is partly about married couples. I know you have worked with most of them in various permutations.
How did you set on that path of casting couples as couples?
I saw that path. I think so many people do Sondheim shows all the time, if we’re going to do Company, I want to make it special; I want to make it different than it’s ever been done before.
For the three married couples in the show, I decided to it would be smart to cast them from actual married couples. It would be smart, in the sense that married couples behave so differently. Instantly in rehearsal, we were so far ahead of the game because they finish each other’s sentences. They were able to be honest and direct with each other. It was great to see those dynamics in the rehearsal room.
The couples had a shorthand with each other that goes beyond acting.
During the first week of rehearsal, we always do a presentation for the major donors. One of the interesting things we did this time was we played the Newlywed Game. I had all the couples in the show do it. It was really funny how they reacted to each other when the real married couples didn’t get the correct answers.
You have the couples, of course, but Company very much hinges on the pivotal role of Robert. Talk about who you have for Bobby.
It’s Matt Scott who did First You Dream with me and Side by Side by Sondheim here at Signature and he and his wife did a cabaret here. He has an amazing voice, which goes without saying.
The part of Robert is so tricky, but Matt has all the qualities this soul-searching character is, which is so great. He just has this personality that is exactly what you want in that role. Bobby can become a victim because he’s not married and all these people around him are, but the great things is we don’t allow the character to go that route. Matt doesn’t play the victim. He brings this friendship and this closeness to all these couples which propels him to the end of the show when he makes that discovery and opens up to sing ‘Being Alive.’
It worked out great with him.
It’s a challenging role since Robert observes and absorbs, staying a part of their lives while remaining aloof from them. That’s a tough order for an actor to play.
Absolutely, all these couples are the wheels that are turning and he’s the axel.
The biggest thing that Bobby needs to have is charm. He’s always just this charming guy and no matter what situation he’s thrown into, whether it’s with the drunk Joanne, or karate-chopping Sarah – all those people. Matt has that charm in spades.
As you said, he is observing but yet he’s part of it. He has to be taking all of that in from those relationships and sees all of the interactions between the couples. Those observations really move his character through the show. They are building blocks for him to get where he needs to be in his own life. You really sense that in this production.
Aside from the onstage talent, you also have familiar collaborators working with you on Company.
It’s like a little family affair, which is great. It’s been wonderful because everyone who is working on the show loves it so much. It’s such a joy to have them all back working on it and we all absolutely love it. What a team: Matthew Gardiner doing choreography, Jon Kalbfleisch for music direction. Plus my designers are Daniel Conway for sets, Frank Labovitz for costumes, and for lighting Chris Lee. Matt Rowe is doing the sound design.
How different is Company this time from the production 20 years ago?
It’s how really we approach the whole thing. This production is very stylized and stylish and it really has a keen sense of design to everything. It feels great in the space in that way. And it feels very, very ‘New York,’ which is great.
Other than the designs, and using the actual married couples on stage, what else has been a part of your fresh approach for Company?
I think it’s less presentational this time than I did it before and we’ve been able to find more nuances in the characters and relationships. It’s those little things, but those little things add up to so much.
The show itself has changed over the years, particularly since it was revived in the 90s when they did the production on Broadway at the Roundabout. When I did it 20 years ago, the song “Marry Me a Little,” that now ends the first act, was not in the show. Now there is a scene about whether or not Bobby ever had a homosexual relationship. We also have “Tick Tock,” a dance number that was in the original but is often cut.Getting to go back and do it now with the revisions has been great.
In some ways, it’s almost like a new show.
Yes, working with the revised material and the show itself is so fulfilling to me. It’s just such a great musical and sometimes you just want to go and have a great time at a great musical. It has these legendary songs, and you can hear them over and over again – they are so vivid and are still fresh today, even though Sondheim wrote them over 40 years ago. It doesn’t feel that at all which is the great thing about his work.
And honestly, like I mentioned before, the first time I did it, I did not do the show justice. When I did it originally, we kept it in the 70s and everyone was in polyester. I know, for instance, the song “Another Hundred People” I had Marta literally come down a fire pole out of the roof of the garage. I look back on that now and say “What was I thinking? I mean, why was she going down a firepole?” I guess we’re all young and naïve at one point. Needless to say, she doesn’t come down a fire pole in this production at all.
I’ve got to get rid of that old memory. And I don’t want it to sound bad for the people who were in it before, it wasn’t their fault by any means. The show I did 20 years ago was just a misconceived, polyester disaster. And this time, it’s not. And really, for myself, I want to do a really great production of Company.You get older and wiser.
Speaking of older and wiser, is it hard to believe you are coming up on the 25th anniversary of Signature?
It’s kind of crazy. It’s 24 years next season, so we have one more year until it’s 25 years. And we did this show 20 years ago; it’s kind of amazing that it’s been that long.
Twenty years ago, did you expect you would be ready to remount it again?
No, not at all. I am so happy we are, and I know people are excited about it, which is wonderful. It’s one of those Sondheim shows that people really connect with. And we have had a blast working on it and putting it up, it’s really like a family doing it.
I think it will keep growing and we will keep trying new things, to push the envelope. Keep doing new work, and then totally reinvent a show like we are with Company – taking something that everyone knows and giving it a whole new life and just a whole new twist.
Twenty years ago, we didn’t even assume we were going to still be here; we were just starting out and trying to survive. And now it ends up turning into what we have now. I think the most important thing is not to stifle the creativity, and instead of asking “Why?” ask “Why not?” And I think that’s what we will totally continue to do.
And right now, you are focusing on putting the finishing touches on your little piece of redemption.
I always say, especially with a new musical, the hardest thing is that last 10 percent, it’s turning those screws and that little percentage actually can be what moves a good show to a great show. That’s what I think this has been like. It’s lots of little things, but they really have added up to make this special and good. It’s been refreshing and fun to do.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Company?
I think they are going to have a great evening of theatre. As individuals, we have soul-searching that we’re always on, no matter whether we’re married or unmarried. And I think that’s the thing that comes to light in this show is the soul-searching that we all do at some point. And some people are going to realize they are lucky to be in a relationship. Maybe it’s not all roses, but it’s really just having that friend or that partner, that person who makes our life better.
Company shows both sides of that coin, relationships, which is what’s great about Sondheim. He doesn’t always end things with a pretty little picture, he leaves you thinking. And I think people will leave Company doing that. And I think that’s what great theatre does.
- Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim .
- Book by George Furth .
- Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince .
- Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick .
- Director: Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Paul Scanlan, Erin Weaver, Evan Casey, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Matthew Scott, Sandy Bainum, Bobby Smith, Erin Driscoll, James Gardiner, Sherri L. Edelen .
- Choreography: Matthew Gardiner .
- Music Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch .
- Scenic Design: Daniel Conway .
- Costume Design: Frank Labovitz .
- Lighting Design: Chris Lee .
- Sound Design: Matt Rowe .
- Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein. Interviewed by Jeff Walker.