Sondheim on ‘Company’ casting Bobby in a female role

Written by By Kevin Tylka

Lately, the gender identity of a couple’s relationship has been the focus of much talk in the LGBTQ community. So it’s interesting that the most relevant discussion in recent years at the intersection of pop culture and politics has centered on a gender swap for the most beloved musical theatre duo.

This season, the musical revival of “Company” is now playing on Broadway with Karen Olivo taking on the iconic role of Joanne, while Andrew Rannells swaps genders to play Bobby. The show’s most notable revision of late isn’t in their casting, however — it’s in the male lead’s description. Rather than “rich businessman,” Bobby has been “creative executive,” a modern mix of the two positions.

Sondheim explains why he saw a need for the gender-swapped version.

“We had a conversation about casting Joanne,” Sondheim says. “It occurred to me, ‘Do we really need to tell people that when Joanne is married to a rich businessman, she’s not a lesbian? In fact, it’s the opposite.’”

So Sondheim himself suggested an alternative title — “Creative Executive,” which he says the director and producers readily embraced.

The problem with the original casting was that the producers had originally cast Joanne as a lesbian and Bobby as a gay man. On top of the fact that it was highly unlikely that a straight woman in her 40s would get her lover’s job in the commercial theater, the casting was very much of the moment in terms of sexuality.

“When people knew at that point that Bobby would be gay, they were called to ask if we could have Joanne say something,” Sondheim says. “They would think, ‘They’re going to be married. They’re going to have a child together. They’re going to have an early retirement.’ They would be sure the whole scene was about all that. So there was a large group of people that wasn’t prepared.”

Yet the new stage direction for the show (aside from the excellent translation by Andrew Lippa) doesn’t seem to have harmed audiences. The non-profit ticket sales organization reported that the show made more than $1 million during the week ending June 25.

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