Company, Stephen Sondheim's seminal 70s song cycle, which ended a run in April at the Cincinnati Playhouse, will be getting a much-deserved revival on Broadway come November. Directed by John Doyle, best known for bringing out Patti Lupone's inner tuba player in the current Sweeney Todd revival, the show has the feel of a never-ending upper crust Manhattan cocktail party. I'll drink to that!
Like Sweeney, the actors also double as the orchestra on a semi-in-the-round stage simply furnished with a grand piano, a rolling bar cart, a few strategically placed cubes, and a simple colonial column surrounded by radiators. The set was designed by David Gallo. In-house LD Thomas C. Hase created a striking visual presence that is almost wholly dependent on white, sometimes harsh, downlight, with the wandering actor/minstrels picked out by a series of spots. When it was time for the actors be the orchestra, they sat in a series of black industrial-style bar stools along the rear (or side, depending on your seats) of the stage where they were again captured by the white downlights. The sound, designed by Andrew Keister, gave the score a simple resonance while keeping the instruments and their players at perfect levels.
However, the envy of the audience was the basic black ensemble designed by Ann Hould-Ward that gave all the cast members — even the airline stewardess, errr, flight attendant — a simple, yet classic elegance. Doyle and Gallo had already decided that the characters should be wealthy, chic, contemporary New Yorkers, according to Hould-Ward, so she scoured fashion magazines and recalled an ad where black clothing was hung from the ceiling in a very white room.
“They were very classically established silhouettes, but because of the stage surrounding them and starkness of the silhouette, it brought this very modern, photographic quality, so we went about working from that image,” Hould-Ward says. One of the looks that the costumer and the director were both going for was a striking scene reminiscent of the al fresco covers of Vanity Fair magazine. At certain points in the show, the actors come together on stage in an “elongated cluster” — some sitting, some standing, some leaning — and with the black background surrounding the parquet wood stage floor. Those moments are achieved quite strikingly. Those scenes “don't hit you over the head like a hammer,” Hould-Ward comments, “but they do exist in the way the piece is constructed.”
The black ensemble also plays well to the show's contemporary setting. Since it was not set in the groovy 1970s, Hould-Ward never had to scour second-hand clothing stores looking for lime green go-go boots or orange plaid blouses. She and her assistant, Sydney Shannon, did their research in the aisles of Saks 5th Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. “My inclination was that each couple would be living in a different part of Manhattan, and Bobby, of course, had the fabulous SoHo loft,” she says. “To a New Yorker, you begin to establish those fashion sensibilities as to where the couple who lived on the Upper West Side would shop, as opposed to the couple who lived on the East Side.”
Hould-Ward adds that she and the director agreed virtually on every choice that the costumer made, with two exceptions: men's shirts and ties and women's shoes. “We would tease each other about American versus English conservatism,” she says. “I would pick something, and he would say it shouldn't be too jazzy. But he brings a great artistic collaboration to the fitting room, as well as to the rehearsal room, which makes it such a wonderful way to work.”