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Stephen Sondheim to Try Gay Twist on 'Company'

Stephen Sondheim - P 2013
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Stephen Sondheim

The composer is collaborating with Tony-winning director John Tiffany on a workshop of the groundbreaking 1970 musical, reconceiving central character Bobby as a gay man.

NEW YORK – Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim is at work with John Tiffany, the Tony Award-winning director of Once, on a radical rethink of his 1970 show Company, about a commitment-phobic 35-year-old New Yorker.

The central twist in the reconceived version -- which is currently being workshopped and will be performed for a private audience on Friday -- is that the central character of marriage-shy Bobby is an out gay man. A number of key characters will undergo a gender switch, including Joanne, the jaded boozer originally played by Elaine Stritch, who gets one of the musical's best-known songs, "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Bobby is being played in the workshop reading by British actor Daniel Evans, a Tony nominee for the 2008 revival of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. Also in the cast are Bobby Steggert, currently in the Broadway cast of Big Fish, and Ugly Betty star Michael Urie, now appearing in the hit off-Broadway play Buyer & Cellar.

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The role originally known as Joanne will be played by Alan Cumming, who worked with Tiffany on a one-man Macbeth presented last season on Broadway.

Musical pundits often have theorized over the years that Bobby's reluctance to settle down with any of his string of girlfriends suggests the character is a closeted gay man. However, Sondheim and the late George Furth, who wrote the book for the show, have disputed that interpretation. But the composer was sufficiently intrigued by Tiffany's proposal to work with him on this new variation.

“It’s still a musical about commitment, but marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970,” Sondheim told The New York Times. “We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way.”

Sondheim has been making tweaks to the lyrics and dialogue on the project, which Roundabout Theatre Company is shepherding through development. Whether or not it moves forward to a full production will depend on the creative team and producers' assessment of Friday's presentation.

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"We have a long and rewarding relationship with Stephen Sondheim," said Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes in a statement. "A reading of Company gives us an opportunity to revisit the musical we produced in 1995 and to work with John Tiffany, an artist we have wanted to work with for a long time. The reading provides a safe environment for our artists to explore bold choices."

In addition to Once and Macbeth, Tiffany's work as director includes the global hit Black Watch; the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, which opened Sept. 26 to rave reviews; and a stage adaptation of the Swedish vampire film and novel, Let the Right One In, which opens Nov. 29 at London's Royal Court.

Originally produced and directed on Broadway in 1970 by Harold Prince, Company broke new ground for a musical in its skeptical dissection of love and relationships. It was nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won six, including best musical, running for almost two years.

The show's most recent Broadway revival was in 2006, starring Raul Esparza as Bobby. That production was filmed for broadcast on PBS. A 2011 New York Philharmonic concert staging headlined by Neil Patrick Harris was also filmed for theatrical release.

Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods is currently being filmed in London by Rob Marshall for Disney, with a starry ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman.