Author: Sokol, Robert
Date published: October 1, 2011
Though both characters are perennial if not confirmed bachelors, Neil Patrick Harris sees no dotted lines between lothario Barney Stinson, his role on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and Bobby, the central character in Company.
"Not really," says Harris. "Barney is such a broad, extreme character with only one thing on his mind - quantity and scoring. Bobby is an actual, fully formed person. He's a playboy bachelor, but he's not so 'conquesty.' I'm glad I've been playing Barney so people were more apt to believe me in the journey of Bobby."
That journey to four performances of Company with the New York Philharmonic in April 2011 was, according to Harris, "insane. The first time we were all together was onstage at the dress rehearsal. We didn't even get through it. We had to stop after 'The Ladies Who Lunch' because they weren't finished teehing. So the first time we ever really did the entire show was the first performance.
"It was as nervous as I've ever been," he says of the first night. "It was a train moving very fast, and I held on as tightly as I could. I got through it by fear and adrenalin. The next one was a bit better ... and by Saturday I was much more present and enjoying myself more. I don't think I was enjoying myself the first night. I just didn't want to fuck it up."
Many of the starry but geographically disbursed cast, which included Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose, Stephen Colbert and Jon Cryer, learned their parts in isolation, by means as unique as videos on their iPhones.
"The lack of rehearsal time was really trying," says Harris, "because we ended up doing what was essentially a fully realized production although it was only touted as semi-staged. We were totally off book and choreographed and blocked very specifically. I didn't really have a lot of time to explore and experiment and try things. You had to make decisions right away. That's a tricky thing for that role because it is ripe for interpretations."
One oft-discussed interpretation has been that Bobby is gay or bisexual, and thus unable to fully connect with the women in his life. Coineidcntally, Larry Kert in the Broadway original, Raúl Esparza in the recent revival and now Harris - all fit that bill in terms of sexual orientation. "You could say that for pretty much any part in musical theatre," he laughs, not making that connection to the character's profile.
"Musical theatre is mostly populated by gay and bisexual men," Harris says. "At the end of the day, it's a story about a guy who's in the closet. I know Steve didn't intend that ... and, having talked with [director] Lonny [Price] about it, that just feels like a really easy solution. I think you have to honor the period and the sort of 'free love' that was going on in the late '60s and early '70s. I don't think too much should be read into that scene he has with Peter, where Peter asks if he's ever had a homosexual experience and Bobby says yes. I assume that would be a pretty normal scenario given the time period, and certainly given the lifestyle."
Harris adds, "Steve said to me that Company is a musical about a boy becoming a man. That was really informative because I think people do like the boyish enthusiasm of Bobby. He's always up to come over and hang out and have a fifth of bourbon and laugh at your jokes and ask questions. He's sort of a talk-show host.
"It's only when he really grows up that you see him process what marriage is, in all of its forms, and that it's so much better to have the good and the bad because at least you're 'being alive' when you're with somebody else. If you're going to commit to 'couplehood,' it's not just 'marry me a little.' You can't just have all the good things. 'Being alive' is good and bad. ... I think he comes to terms with wanting to feel. I think Bobby doesn't feel very much."
Though he'd previously appeared in the Roundabout revival of Assassins and a concert production of Sweeney Todd, Harris came to this Sondheim project with a relatively clean slate. "I knew some of the songs, but out of the context of the show."
Once aboard, the material proved more daunting than he had anticipated. "It was sort of like learning that you were doing five one-act plays, one after the other after the other. Bobby's all-inclusiveness is both intriguing and kind of ominous because he's very captive as an observer through most of it, and that's a difficult thing to play. It was challenging for me to go on this non-linear journey, because you couldn't take knowledge from what just happened and use it to inform what's about to happen."
Harris adds, "The big song and dance numbers - 'Company' and 'Side by Side by Side' - were actually the easiest parts."
Sondheim gave him some advice, Harris mentions. "The plot is all in [Bobby's] mind and you're sort of looking at all these photos on the wall. It totally is the existential musical. When everyone is singing to you and at you, it puts a lot of focus on you. That's a strange place to be when you're not quite sure how to connect the dots yet. It's the most challenging thing I've done."
Part of that challenge was Bobby's duality. "He's supposed to be the life of the party. They keep singing for him to come over, 'We want to hang out with you' and 'Aren't you the best?' He's also overtly flawed, and everyone talks about it. So you have to play both sides. I think he's just a very human character."
Harris suggests that, as much as Bobby's friends say they want to change him, they really need him to stay as he is. "It feels like they need him to be single so that he can be their little plaything. Not sexually, but they can send him off on dates, and they can live vicariously through him. In a weird way they sort of need that third wheel to complete their lives. Otherwise it's just couples going on dates together, and it seems like the couples in this show don't need that."
He feels that the show is very pro-relationship. "Very much so. Harry and Sarah may fight a lot, but they've chosen each other. They complete each other. Peter and Susan get a divorce but they still live together because they need each other. It's just how they define their relationship. So I think it's pro-relationship. It just shows that it's not all pretty and beautiful and lovely."
The teenage Harris first discovered Sondheim through cast recordings. "One of the first shows I ever learned inside and out was Into the Woods, which was my entrance into his world. I liked his cleverness with words and his lyric structure. I saw the video of Sweeney Todd with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. I liked how bloody it was. I'm a big fan of stage blood."
There are several Sondheim shows about which he feels "woefully uneducated. There's a bunch of Shakespeare I've never seen or read either, but eventually I'll be asked to do a reading of one. I'll study it and learn about it and ask myself how did I ever not read this or know about this before?"
The ability to consult with Sondheim on nuances of the material was a gift. "I try to be as transparent as I can so that he can hear where I'm coming from and tap me in the right direction. He's very eloquent. He has lovely things to say, and he knows what to say at the right moment in a given circumstance. He was here for the final dress rehearsal. I talked with him for a good half-hour about stuff. Before that we'd email back and forth about what 'the pictures on the wall' meant, about what 'love 70 ways' means. It's kinda great that I can email Steve Sondheim and get answers to questions."
Back in Los Angeles, the TV series and his family are top priorities for Harris. A possible Barnum revival on Broadway dangles in the future. Asked about expanding his Sondheim résumé, he suggests that Merrily We Roll Along seems like "a fun show and I'm intrigued by the backwards structure of it. I'm still hoping that Steve will write a new one. I'm always anxious to be in something new. We'll see if that happens."
ROBERT SOKOL is a freelance writer, creative director of a graphic design firm and publisher of Bay Stages, a San Francisco performing arts magazine.