Culturebox

Have I Got a Play for You

Flouting copyright law to bring the brilliance of Company to West Hollow Junior High School.

company promo.
The author in a West Hollow Junior High School hallway in 1991.

Jordana Williams

In the summer of 1990, I was not cast in the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts production of Company. Yet I came to know Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical masterpiece well, because I had a major crush on one of the actors. I would sneak out of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie rehearsals and sit on a grassy hill near the open-air studio to watch the cooler kids grapple with scenes and songs about commitment, compromise, and regret. I was sure, to the very marrow of my never-been-kissed 14-year-old bones, that Company represented the sad, funny truth of adulthood.

I remember only a few things about the actual performance the final week of camp. The lighting made liberal use of blue gels—oh, the urbanity! During the sexy bits, I heard myself consciously reshaping my nervous titters into knowing laughter. My crush wore boxers with big red hearts on them.

I returned to school that fall afire with purpose.

Now was the time to bring the brilliance of Company to the unsuspecting denizens of West Hollow Junior High School. Now: two decades after it premiered, two decades before we’d be the ages of any of these characters. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Several students had attended the same camp and been similarly blown away by Company. We approached our music teacher with a proposal for a student-run, faculty-supervised production. The administration responded with reservations. We parried them all effortlessly.

Inappropriate content? No problem. Rewrites!

Inappropriate lyrics? Big deal. More rewrites. Rhyming rewrites!

Not enough roles for interested students? Don’t worry your pretty little heads. We have a plan.

To this day I can’t imagine why they approved it. Were they awed by our glorious hubris? Were they pleased that anyone at the school demonstrated this much passion … about anything? Did they believe the task was so insurmountable we would eventually give up, and they’d never have to face the results? Was it simply easier to give in rather than keep talking to us about it?

I appointed myself head rewriter. The ideas came faster than I could jot them down. Sprawled out on my aquamarine bedroom carpet, filling my knockoff Trapper Keeper with bubbly cursive, I giggled at my own inventiveness. The administration had told us our characters could not smoke pot; we reconceived Act 1, Scene 4 to have Bobby, Jenny, and David overindulge in alcohol. It probably goes without saying that the Company student executive board were SADD exemplars, but the jokes pretty much wrote themselves:

DAVID
Time to pray to the porcelain god!

JENNY
We’re converting?

Rim shot!

These sex-alluding lyrics, from “Have I Got a Girl for You,” needed to be neutered:

Smart! And into all those exotic mystiques—
The Kama Sutra and Chinese techniques.
I hear she knows more than 75.
Call me tomorrow if you’re still alive!

In a snap, I rewrote the lines as so:

Smart! She’s a billionaire entrepreneur—
She’ll pay your dinner bill and get the door.
If you like strength, then this girl is for you.
Call me tomorrow, I want a review.

It’s definitely a panache downgrade, but I suspect that Ayn Rand (who I was also really into at the time) would have preferred my version.

I also acted in the show, of course. I played crazy Amy, who is “Not Getting Married Today.” Nearly all my line deliveries were stolen from the young woman who’d played the role at camp; indeed, I’d pursued the role as a kind of transitive wish-fulfillment exercise, because my crush had played Amy’s husband back at camp. An alumnus of our school, he returned to run sound for this production but still somehow never saw his way clear to fall in love with me.

The most difficult aspect of adapting Company for a large suburban high school on Long Island, it turns out, is cast size. The cast of Company is 14 characters: Bobby, his three girlfriends, and the five married couples who are his closest friends. The script also allows for a chorus (the “Vocal Minority“) of four. We were charged with finding ways to expand the cast to allow for wider student participation.

The process began reasonably enough. We assigned understudies for each role. We also gave each of Bobby’s girlfriends a boyfriend to leave Bobby for when his fear of commitment grew tiresome.

But more students wanted in. So we added a crew of dancer-mimes who did a lot of incongruous vogueing and wore comedy/tragedy masks to provide visual commentary, notably as opposing cheering sections during a marital karate battle between Sarah and Harry. An extended nightclub-set dance sequence to the DeBarge classic “Rhythm of the Night“ proved a lively lead-in for the brutal Sondheim showstopper, “Ladies Who Lunch.”

But still more students clamored for roles! And then inspiration struck—the kind of inspiration that elevates the ridiculous to the sublime. Consider the “Side by Side“ lyric about how Bobby, thanks to the kids of his married-couple friends, is “seven times a godfather”: Why not make it 11? And why not make all 11 of those children characters? With dialogue?! That I would write for them?!!

From left: Bobby, Amy, Paul, and then possibly their twin 10-year-old daughters who maybe attended their wedding for some reason?

Jordana Williams

The final cast totaled 62—including younger versions of those children, appearing in brief flashbacks, played by various cast members’ siblings and babysitting charges. Most of the children had only a line or two of dialogue. There were jokes about bedtimes and rambunctious boys and even one teenager who tried out her incipient wiles on Uncle Bobby. What I remember most about writing for the kids was how removed I felt from them, my contemporaries, as compared to the adults, with whom I fully identified.

The pinnacle of my career as unauthorized Sondheim/Furth script doctor has to be this dramatic moment between Jenny and her recently invented daughter, Dana. Heavily influenced by that “I learned it by watching you!” PSA, this not-quite-two-minute-long scene is a deeply earnest look at adolescent body image issues, how the choices a mother makes can affect her daughter, and how hard it is to party down and still be a responsible parent. It also contains the line, “Where does it end?!” of which I’m particularly proud.

What did any of this have to do with the acclaimed Sondheim/Furth musical? About as much as your average 14-year-old’s conception of adulthood has to do with actual adulthood. Flipping now through our patchwork golem of a script, aghast, I estimate that 80 percent of what we performed actually appears in the original Company. We left lengthy passages essentially unaltered, but fully rewrote others. Even when the lines and lyrics were unchanged, we took subtler liberties, like converting “Being Alive,” Bobby’s solo meditation on loneliness and longing, into a full company number featuring three-part harmony.

The performances were uneven, especially among the boys. Things may have changed since the advent of Glee but, back in the day, any male with a pulse and a willingness to be caught dead doing musical theater had a pretty good shot at being cast. They shuffled their feet and shifted their weight and tried their darnedest to sing the notes as written. In retrospect their performances were an apt, though unintended, metaphor for the fragility of performative masculinity in the wake of the sexual revolution.

So, where were the grown-ups when all of this was happening? Why didn’t they stop us, or at least advise us that our violations of copyright ranged from artistically disastrous to legally actionable? Now that I have kids of my own, I can guess why they stepped back and let us go hog wild. They knew we’d have the rest of our lives to question and edit ourselves (and acquire permission before monkeying with someone else’s art). The heedlessness we displayed would be repellent in an adult, but is arguably kind of awesome in a bunch of kids.

My son is working on his first musical, the soon-to-be smash hit Army Chickens. He’s a very practical boy, so early on, he came to my husband and me with a bunch of questions about budgets and ticket prices and actor pay and set construction needs. “No!” I shouted, probably too vehemently. “Just write the thing however you like.” And why not? He’ll never know what his wildest dreams are if he doesn’t start out as if nothing is impossible.