Theatre Marianne Elliott tells Rachel Cooke about taking Sondheim’s Company to the West End
As War Horse director Marianne Elliott brings the Sondheim musical Company to the West End, she explains why reinventing his main character was nerve-racking, and why – despite being born a Londoner – her outlook will be forever northern
In Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collected lyrics, Stephen Sondheim sums up what he calls the “notion” of his 1970 musical, Company, in two sentences. “A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends,” he writes. He then adds, somewhat tartly: “That is the entire plot.”
Those who revere Sondheim swoon before Company: we love the fact that it takes place not over a period of time, but during an extended moment in the mind of its leading character; it includes some of his greatest songs, among them Marry Me a Little and Being Alive. But almost half a century after its first production there is perhaps a problem at its heart. In 2018, no one much cares if a man is single at 35, least of all the man himself. In fact, think about it too hard, and Company’s “notion” might seem a touch creepy.
“This man, sleeping around with all these women,” says Marianne Elliott, whose new production of the musical will open in London next month. “He’s not really interested in them. He’s trying to get them into bed. After #MeToo, it might feel a bit… odd.” If she sounds vague as she says this – she frowns a little as she talks – it’s only because all this feels rather distant now: a knot for others to unpick, not her. In her production, you see, commitment-shy Bobby has become commitment-shy Bobbie – a switch of gender that, three weeks into rehearsals, she already feels to be so absolutely right it’s sometimes hard to imagine it any other way.
Elliott would love to claim this brilliant idea as her own, but the truth is that it came from her business partner, Chris Harper, with whom she runs the production company, Elliott and Harper.
“We were talking about the things we’d always wanted to do,” she says. “He was in America – his surrogate twins had been born prematurely – and he was walking to and from the hospital listening to Company, which he knew I’d always loved, as he went along. One day, he rang and said: why don’t you make him a woman? Well, I am interested in women protagonists, and in women who are getting older. We’re not really represented, and you feel of less and less value. Then again, I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. It had to mean something – and of course some other characters would have to switch gender, too, if it was going to work properly.”
The more she thought about it, though, the more obvious it seemed. A woman who is 35 can’t help but feel under a certain amount of pressure to settle down. She will be asked if she wants children. It will be suggested to her that she is just being fussy. Even as she enjoys her career, her friendships, her sex life, she will be told that a compromise must be made, that time is running out. Elliott, surely the most acclaimed and talented director of her generation, already knew Sondheim a little. They met after he saw her production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the National Theatre in 2007; there having been some talk of her directing West Side Story [Sondheim wrote the lyrics], she went for dinner at his house in New York, which was “terrifying… though he told me brilliant stories about Katharine Hepburn, who lived next door”. She knew, then, that he would probably be open to listening to her ideas, but she also knew that he would take some persuading. “He’s so specific. Everything he writes supports the character’s psychology. And when we first talked, he wasn’t sure. He’d previously been involved in a workshop in which all the characters had become gay men, and he had said no, then. He didn’t think it worked.”
She asked if she might do a workshop, too, which she would film and send to him. “So that’s what we did. We had a week, and Rosalie [Craig, who will play Bobbie in her new production] was in it, and it was amazing. Afterwards, I rang him, and I said: will you please just watch it with some women in the room, and some younger people? He said that he would, and he did – and once he’d seen it, he told us that we should go on with it. Certain things didn’t work, then, and he wanted to think about them. But in the end, it was really just a case of him changing some tiny things in the music, and the words ‘his’ and ‘hers’ and ‘he’ and ‘she’ being swapped around. We haven’t changed much. The key was to respect George Furth’s words [Furth, Sondheim’s longtime collaborator, who died in 2008, wrote the book].” Her production will, she says, be “quite Alice in Wonderland… we’re really pushing the idea of what’s going on in Bobbie’s head. On stage, she walks through quite a lot of doors.”
When will Sondheim get to see the production? It is said that he can be seriously scary in rehearsals.
“He’ll be there at the dress rehearsal, and at the first preview. We’ve had some healthy debates already, but to be fair, he has also said: ‘Marianne, I am a man, and I am 88, and you have to guide me. I don’t necessarily see the world in the way you do.’ Still, it is very nerve-racking. A bit like working with Tony Kushner [in 2017, Elliott staged Kushner’s epic Angels in America at the National Theatre and on Broadway to huge acclaim].” She makes a funny, agonised noise halfway between a laugh and a low moan. “If he says anything I agree with, then brilliant – and people say he gives very good notes. If there’s anything I don’t agree with… we’ll just have to have that conversation.”
At the moment, though, she is feeling confident. “It’s a 3D art form. You never know what something is going to be like properly until you get it fully up on its feet. But everything I’ve seen is so exciting. The music is amazing. The scenes are very funny. I’ve got the most fantastic cast [among its other members are Jonathan Bailey, Mel Giedroyc and – a huge coup, given that not so long ago she said she had sworn off musical theatre for ever – the Broadway star Patti LuPone].”
Elliott and I talk in a rehearsal space in Southwark, south London, during her lunch hour. I can see, on a makeshift stage, several of the aforementioned doors; on one wall are photographs of Bunny Christie’s sleek designs
for the show. She is the first female director to win two Tony awards – for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both of which began their stage lives in the National Theatre, where she was an associate director until 2017 – and, at 51, a long way from her own single years (she married the actor Nick Sidi in 2002; they have one daughter). But directing Company has made her think again about that time – just as she hopes it will make her audience think about their lives.
“Men don’t have to worry about these things, do they? There is a structural unfairness. My 30s were major, work-wise, and all my life I’d said: I’m not going to get married, and I’m definitely not having children either because I want a career. I thought the two were mutually exclusive. When I met Nick, of course, I felt differently. Even so, when someone older than me in the theatre said: ‘You’d better get on with it now if you want kids’, I remember thinking: oh, my God, right. I was terrified my career would go down the drain. I still to this day think that I didn’t have a second child because it would compromise my career. I don’t regret that I didn’t; we’re such a great triangle, I can’t imagine anything different now. But I know that was the decision in my head.”
Things are, she believes, changing for women in the theatre, and fairly rapidly. There are so many more female directors than there used to be. “But I think it will be interesting when they start having babies. We’re not well paid. There’s no childcare, and there are times when it’s an almost round-the-clock job.” Still, this new generation of women has already helped to alter the atmosphere. “I remember when I started. I assisted a director who had previously used to ring a bell to start or stop a scene in rehearsals, and even to get the actors to be quiet. That’s what they used to be like. Yes, imperious. It’s less about ego or showing how clever you are now. It’s no longer simply an intellectual exercise.”
What does she make of #MeToo? “I think it’s the beginning of a sea change. It is enabling people to say: that is not acceptable. I know someone who not so long ago was in a compromised situation throughout a whole day – and they didn’t leave, or say anything. But now we’ve created a language, and when people speak, everyone else will understand.”
She accepts that for all that she has to say about the invisibility of the middleaged woman, this is a brilliant time for her; you would call it her zenith if you weren’t convinced that there’s vastly more to come. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily feel this way from her side. When she turned 50, all she wanted to do was “close the door and get under the table with a bottle of wine”. She takes nothing for granted. For one thing, it is so easy to fail in the theatre. “I always say to my cast: this [rehearsal] room is genuinely safe. It’s all right to fail. In fact, you have to keep failing. If you don’t, you might not find what you need in the end.” For another, she is always in touch with the child she once was, and that girl could never have imagined how – or how well – her life would work out in the end. Even as a teenager, theatre was the last thing she wanted to do.
Elliott grew up in Stockport, the younger daughter of Michael Elliott, the director and co-founder of the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, and Rosalind Knight, the actor. Her parents’ marriage was complicated and not always happy, and she remembers herself as a silent, watchful little girl who spent a lot of time sitting under the family dining table listening to what was going on above her. “She’s with me all the time,” she says of this child. “But she’s quite instructive, too. It made me interested in language – and I don’t mean spoken language. I mean in what was really going on. I was young; I didn’t understand a lot of the conversations I could hear, but I started picking up what was not in the spoken word. I’m still fascinated by people in that way. I watch them. I often think: why did they do that? And that’s what you want an audience to feel, too. You want it to wonder: what’s really going on here?” She relishes subtext, what she calls “the utter delicacy” of the interplay between words and movement and silence; where the magic of theatre happens.
Her father left when she was 15, and for a year she refused to speak to him. They had not long been reconciled – she was by then 17 – when he died (he had kidney disease). No one, she says, spoke to her about his death and, unable to “metabolise” it herself, it took her a decade to recover. “I can honestly say I was in a pretty bad state of mourning for 10 years, though no one would have noticed. But then I went [after Hull University, where she read drama, and various other jobs] to the Royal Exchange as an assistant director, which was extraordinary, really, because it was a theatre I’d never really been able to step in before; it was just so potent.” Unbeknown to her, at least at first, the office where she now worked had previously belonged to her father. “And it was so weird. I just felt this weight lifting. Maybe I felt close to him, suddenly. I don’t know. I had never known him as a director. I’d never been to his rehearsals, or even to his shows. But now I was sitting in his office.” Does she ever wish he could come to her rehearsals and first nights? “God, no.” She shakes her head. “I don’t think I would have been a director at all if he hadn’t died. [His death] was terrible, but it was pretty releasing. He was a giant in my life, and I needed that giant not to be there.”
She is proud of her northern roots; when her husband accused her the other day of not being a real northerner (she was born in London), she was indignant. “Manchester made me,” she says. “I moved there when I was eight, and I understood the codes – or I understood them better than the ones at home. Manchester is very front foot, confident, out there, blatant. That was the opposite to my family background, but that was also hugely releasing. I got to love it, and I still do.” It is a love she has put into her work in various ways, most notably when she staged Port, the Stockport-set play of her friend and longtime collaborator, Simon Stephens, at the National Theatre in 2013.
Does she miss the National Theatre? (It hasn’t been long: Company is only Elliott and Harper’s third production.) “I miss the resources. But otherwise, no, it has been liberating. I don’t have to worry about the building or board meetings, and the possibilities are exciting. It is tough out there, but War Horse and Curious Incident taught Chris and me that there is a hunger for theatre that is challenging, and this theatre can also be commercial.” How thrilling, though, that her final piece for the National Theatre was Angels in America, an epic production that was by every measure extraordinary. “I feel really proud of it,” she says. “I think: Oh my fucking God, I did that. It’s so long and demanding and layered. I mean, it’s almost impossible to do. Something really happened there. People queued overnight for tickets. When one of the previews ran late, and the second interval ended up happening at about midnight, every single person came back in afterwards.” She throws me a confiding look. “But… we really need three days to talk about it. And a lot of wine.”
MeToo is enabling people... We’ve created a language, and when people speak, everyone else will understand
Company is at the Gielgud theatre, London W1 from 26 September to 22 December
Marianne Elliott photographed at the Jerwood Space, London, for the Observer.
LEFT Elliott’s 2007 production of War Horse.Graeme Robertson for the Observer LEFT Marianne Elliott, right, with Rosalie Craig and Richard Fleeshman in rehearsals for Company.Helen Maybanks BELOW Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Angels in America, 2017.
LEFT Niamh Cusack and Luke Treadaway in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime, at the National in 2012.