About two years ago, I was in New York with friends, having a theatre weekend. We’d seen two shows together already, but on Sunday, they wanted to see something I’d already seen, so I bought myself a ticket to see the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, the one that gender-swapped half of its characters and featured Patti LuPone swilling martinis in a giant fur coat. I’d never seen it before, and I was excited. But when I met my friends later at our hotel for a drink before hopping on the train, I had a confession to make: I hated it.
Before you take away my gay card (just kidding; you can’t have it), I didn’t hate it because the songs weren’t sublime or the performances weren’t hilarious and/or heartbreaking. I loved the set, the costumes, and the staging. But I hated the show because it hurt my feelings.
If you’ve never seen Company, it’s basically a series of little disjointed scenes between our protagonist (“Bobby,” a man in most versions, but a woman — “Bobbi” — in the 2021 revival) visiting with the married couples that make up her circle of friends or going on a series of dates. All of Bobbi’s married friends want her to settle down, but Bobbi isn’t sure, and it goes on like that for two hours of sublime songs and hilarious/heartbreaking performances, until it finally culminates in a song called “Being Alive,” in which Bobbi realizes that her unwillingness to be vulnerable and therefore open to love is no way to live a life. She then commits to finding “someone to hold you too close/someone to hurt you too deep.”
To be clear, I’m not against the idea of love. I happen to think that love is a very important part of every psychologically healthy person’s life, and to be deprived of love is a situation that absolutely must be remedied. I also believe that love isn’t limited to the romantic variety. I’m a single person; I haven’t been in a committed romantic relationship in over a decade. Perhaps I will again, if I meet someone single and compatible — but I’ve learned through experience that couplehood is not by itself a recipe for happiness, and being on my own is infinitely preferable to being with the wrong person. So, when Bobbi got to lyrics like “but alone/is alone/not alive,” it stopped me short. I’m single and okay with being single. Am I not … alive?
I left the theatre, and for a solid fifteen minutes wallowed in my lonely, single existence. But it didn’t stick. Because I didn’t feel lonely. Like Bobbi, I have a whole “company” of people, some single and some married, who function as a found family. And if I’m not a lonely, miserable person, why was I so upset? As I approached the hotel bar and ordered a cocktail, I realized I wasn’t sad, I was angry. I wasn’t pathetic and miserable, but I’d been insulted. I’d been told that my single life was meaningless. I rejected the premise of the insult, but had to admit it still stung. Then, my friends arrived and asked with wide eyes, “How was the show?”
A year later, it still upsets me to think about that solitary walk from the Jacobs Theatre back to my hotel. Mostly, I’m upset with myself. It’s terrible to think how long took to get to a place of acceptance and happiness. For decades, my single status was the absolute worst thing about my life, and it remains the thing that everyone in my life feels entitled to help me “fix.” I used to turn down opportunities to take trips or make plans too far in advance in case I happened to obtain a boyfriend between now and then. I went on awful second and third dates with men who would have made me miserable in the hopes that I could trick them into liking me. I went to therapy and practiced mindful gratitude, and eventually felt whole and complete, even without a partner — and all of it was undone by a two-hour musical.
What I now believe is that Stephen Sondheim was deeply lonely in the late 60s when he wrote the show. He wasn’t the icon he seems today, especially after his death. He was a supremely gifted but otherwise ordinary gay man living in a deeply homophobic world who wouldn’t find someone to pull him up short and put him through hell and give him support for another thirty years or so. He believed everything he’d ever heard being single (none of it good), and threw those insecurities up on stage. I suspect that happy couples who see the show love it, partly because of the sublime songs and hilarious/heartbreaking performances, but also because they’ve found their person and can leave the theatre feeling validated: Yes, they’ll think, I have someone who crowds me with love and forces me to care and makes me come through and will always be there, and I am better for it. And I write this with no snark whatsoever: I’m happy for them, and glad they enjoyed the show.
But I learned that art isn’t the truth, at least not an objective truth. We go to art to learn and grow, to look in the mirror or through a window, and what we see has a lot to do with the artist(s) who created the work and even more to do with ourselves. And sometimes, because of who they are — but more importantly, who we are — we won’t like what we see, and that’s okay. (My gay card is staying right where it is.)