Arts & Leisure

It’s time for ‘Company’

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENT Madison Middleton raises a cocktail during a rehearsal for the upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” opening at Town Hall Theater on Jan. 27.
Independent photo/Steve James

A production of a Stephen Sondheim musical is always an event, but the master composer’s death this past November gives the upcoming Middlebury production of “Company” a new poignancy. 

“We scheduled this production of ‘Company’ last summer,” said Town Hall Theater Artistic Director Douglas Anderson. “So it’s bittersweet timing to find ourselves presenting the work so soon after his death. I must say it gives everyone connected with it a new sense of purpose. We want to demonstrate to the world just how thoroughly Sondheim changed the American Musical Theater.” 

The production will run Jan. 27-30 and is the 16th co-production of Town Hall Theater and the Middlebury College Department of Music. Anderson and Music Director Carol Christensen have built the program into a much-awaited annual event, playing to sold-out houses and critical acclaim. 

After the selection was made and casting was set, Christensen began vocal rehearsals in October for the 14 actors. 

“We met twice a week for a total of about 60 hours of rehearsal time over the fall semester,” Christensen explained. “Sondheim ensembles are notoriously challenging to learn — they’re often like putting an intricate puzzle or chain together, where if you’re missing a piece or a link and there’s a hole in the texture, things can go more than a little haywire.”

Sondheim’s lyrics are generally considered among the best-ever written — witty, complex and brilliantly constructed. There’s a great deal of humor in a Sondheim musical, but also a great many gut-wrenching truths.

“It always takes us a little while to catch up with Sondheim,” Anderson said. “Many of his musicals were not immediately successful…We fall in love a little late. After spending some time with his work we listen, learn and accept how iconoclastic the music truly is.” 

As one reviewer put it, “‘Company’ dares to say things that haven’t been said before or since in an American musical.” 

“Company” debuted in 1970, with both music and lyrics by Sondheim. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but many audience members didn’t know what to make of it. 

“Musicals have always been extremely idealistic,” Anderson said. “They say that marriage is the best thing that can happen to you, and happily-ever-after is for real. That’s all fine, says Sondheim, but life isn’t like that.” 

So while a beloved musical like “Guys and Dolls” ends with two happy marriages, in “Company” Sondheim presented, for the first time, marriages that are complicated and difficult. 

“He gave the musical the dramatic heft of a good straight play,” added Anderson, who taught a course on the History of the American Musical at Middlebury last year. “Most classic musicals are pitched to a 14-year-old mind. Sondheim was determined to treat us like the adults we are.” 

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS Ryan Opiela-Young (left) and Zack Maluccio (right) share a moment during rehearsal early this week.
Independent photo/Steve James

Starring in the production is Zachary Maluccio ’23. He plays Robert (aka Bobby), the single man whose friends are all married yet conflicted about the choices they’ve made in their lives. As he looks at his dysfunctional circle of friends, he wonders if marriage is something he should avoid. By the end of the piece, however, he realizes that he needs human contact, he needs to embrace commitment, and he sings the famous 11 o’clock number “Being Alive.” 

“There’s a general rule that you can’t watch the way other people did certain things otherwise you’ll imitate them, and you won’t do you,” Maluccio responded when asked about his rendition of this infamous number. “It’s so interesting to have a character that’s so beloved by all and so affable; so charismatic and hollow. The character is almost just a huge cover for what he’s going though — emptiness.

“The incredible thing about ‘Being Alive’ is that it’s the culmination of all that; if you let yourself feel that emptiness and protect it… walls around more walls… Then once you get to singing ‘Being Alive’ you can organically let those walls come down and be done lying to yourself.”

Sondheim is known to have four principles that underpin his work: “Content Dictates Form, Less is More, God is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity.” 

For Maluccio, “Less is more” is what resonates while he’s playing Bobby. “Bobby of all of the people is the calm, recognizable rock that doesn’t stray, will never let himself go too outlandish with anything,” Maluccio said. “It’s kind of hard. It’s something that I’ve been reminding myself of a lot: Bobby is a person observing all of these couples, seeing how they interact with each other. This is a show about them through his eyes; so he can’t really be the focus.”

Maluccio was an intern for the Town Hall Theater last summer and fall, and remembers when Anderson chose “Company” for the J-term performance.

“I showed my enthusiasm from that moment,” said the Economics and theater double major, who also took Anderson’s History of the American Musical course last January. “I think at that moment I wouldn’t let the thought go into my head — that I might get to be Bobby… Oh my god, that would be unbelievable. Now I see it as an opportunity of a lifetime. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have these opportunities. And when I look back, I want to say, wow, I did that to the absolute best I could do.”

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS rehearse a dance number in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” opening at Town Hall Theater on Jan. 27.

In just two and a half weeks, Maluccio and the rest of the cast, plus a 15-member pit orchestra of students, directed by Ronnie Romano ’20, will produce this Sondheim masterpiece.

“We rehearse all elements of the production six hours per day, five days a week,” added Christensen. “In both the fall and throughout January, with pandemic rules in place, we rehearse fully masked — there are some students whose entire face I have never seen! It’s difficult to get a good supportive low breath and tough to sing high, full-volume sections with a mask right up against your face, especially when you’re also executing high energy choreography. I’m so impressed with how the students have adapted to singing in what is the ‘new normal’ for us.”

On Friday, the instrumentalists and the singers will join together for the first time “in a rehearsal known as a Sitzprobe in which we rehearse music only with no blocking, lines, costumes or sets,” explained Christensen. “Next week, the orchestra will accompany all our rehearsals leading up to opening night. ”

Adding to the incredible cast and instrumentalists are Elisa Van Duyne (choreography), Emma Cowper ’20.5 (costumes), Courtney Smith (lighting) and Abbey Plankey-Smith (technical director).

“We are all thrilled to be making music together again and excited to bring this show to the Middlebury community,” Christiansen exclaimed.

“There’s been so much glowing press following Sondheim’s death,” Anderson added. “Here’s a chance to see what the fuss is all about.”

Tickets for “Company” are $20; Middlebury College ID holders $15; Middlebury College students $6, and may be purchased at townhalltheater.org, by calling 802-382-9222, or by visiting the THT box office (Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.) 

Town Hall Theater observes strict COVID protocols, requiring proof of vaccination and a booster, if eligible, or proof of negative PCR test, as well as a photo ID. Masks must always be worn inside the theater. 

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