“We got the news alert on the train at 96th Street,” Daniel Hrdlicka was telling me tonight as we stood in the aisle of the Jacobs Theatre with his husband, Tyson Jurgens, “and had booked the tickets by 116th.” The tickets were for Company, the Stephen Sondheim–George Furth musical that is now in previews for a December 9 opening, and the news alert had been the startling fact of Sondheim’s death earlier today. “We usually don’t sit down here” — he gestured to his very good seat, on the aisle a few rows back from the stage, “because our theater budget is limited. But …” He paused, and his point was clear, even before he continued: “We wanted to pay tribute in this very small way.”
Usually when the lights go down in a Broadway house, a few minutes after 8 p.m., there’s a sort of excited quiet murmur, an exhalation as everyone sits up and prepares to take in the show. Tonight at Company there was instead flat silence. Then Marianne Elliott, the production’s director, stepped onstage. “Truly the greatest artist in our lifetime that we possibly will ever know in this art form,” she said in her short tribute. “I really hope tonight will be a celebration of his joy.” It took only two or three sentences before she had to pause, because the crowd was on its feet, cheering and applauding. Elliott introduced the cast, saying she wanted to “share this pain and love together,” and the curtain rose to reveal the assembled company of Company. Patti LuPone, who has starred in three Sondheim productions on Broadway in the past decade and a half — not to mention a moment in his 80th-birthday concert that was truly one for the ages — spoke briefly, dedicating this one to him.
The cast had been wrapping up a Friday matinee when the announcement came in. Elliott explained to me, after her introductory remarks, that she’d gathered the actors after they came offstage to tell them the sad news. The mood was somber, with “lots of tears,” she said. “But then we all got together and had something to eat and were sharing anecdotes — it was a lovely thing.” It’s the show’s ninth preview; coincidentally, she noted, this production had reached its ninth preview a year and a half ago, in March 2020, on the night Broadway shut down. There was no talk of going dark tonight, she said. “People want to keep his words alive, to do it for him. A lot of the songs will have a resonance that we haven’t seen before.”
And it’s true: This already-moving musical seemed tonight to get to the audience a little more than usual. The laugh lines got extra-big laughs, and the emotional high points of the show — the chattering freight train of a song that is “Getting Married Today,” and of course LuPone’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” — both pulled in thunderous responses. The latter one actually did stop the show for a standing ovation. (Although one suspects that Patti LuPone might be able to do that on any given night.) And of course the big emotional thunder sheet that is Company’s closing number, “Being Alive,” is an intense one under normal circumstances. Katrina Lenk, who sings it here, performs the song differently from some of her predecessors, with a little less desperation and more sweetness and hope. I couldn’t help thinking, as the cheers thundered in at the end of that one and the performers took their bows shortly afterward, that the cast’s customary upward sweep of the arm toward the band seemed to also be a gesture toward the heavens. Lenk and LuPone, exiting the stage after the bows, leaned heavily on one another, as if it had been a draining night. Outside, as we all made our way into Times Square, cellophane-wrapped bouquets of roses had begun to pile up on the steps by the stage door.