Want Something: a Neurodivergent reading of Company (1970)
“Actually, I didn’t wish for anything."
- Robert, Act one, Page 8.
George Furth and Stephen Sondheim's revolutionary concept musical Company is oft-revived and well loved.
Centering around a man and his married friends, the show concludes with titular character Robert deciding that he can't deny himself intimacy out of fear.
Company's multigenerational success in the past nearly-51 years shows that the idea continues to resonate with people. But how does the show pull this off? How does a show about a minority appeal to such a majority, regardless of relationship status.
The themes of intimacy are universal partially, but I think that Company truly finds its footing putting the audience in a place that they don't usually connect to, that of autism.
On the surface, Bobby is anything but a character that could be tagged as neurodivergent. He isn't the stereotype, in fact he's a near complete reversal of it. He's suave, he's charming, and the entire show is about his massive amounts of friends. But it's in how the show frames his relationships with his friends that can be construed quite relevantly.
Company is a satire of the institution of American heterosexual marriage. Specifically, the show, like its sister play Twigs (Furth, 1971) focuses on how misogyny shapes these dynamics, with the wives and girlfriends being in particular focus. Part of how the show pushes this to satire is through the framing. Bobby sits plainly amongst his friends, never truly intertwined into their narratives. He is an observer, watching the action right with us. Occasionally, he makes a joke, or he is dragged in to comment on the situation. But for most of the scenes where he is with his couple friends, he is a third wheel. A loved third wheel, maybe, but as Sondheim wrote in the act 2 opener What Would We Do Without You, they’d be doing exactly what they usually do were Bobby not with them.
That being said, Bobby (Robert) Company is not neurodivergent. This isn't to say that theoretically he couldn't be played as neurodivergent. But compared to the cacophony of characters that read more neurodivergent in both Company (Marta, April) and in the rest of Furth's body of work (Charley Kringas in particular, more on that some other time) Bobby is simply just some guy. I don't see Bobby himself as neurodivergent… Well, actually, I do, but I see all characters as neurodivergent. It's how I keep myself together. But regardless, not on any serious level can I argue that Bobby comes off as neurodivergent. I say "comes off" because obviously none of this is intentional. However, I do think they both Marta and April come off as neurodivergent on a quite service level.
Marta is the most obvious of the two. She is impressed by what everyone else sees as mundane. She is extremely observant of those around her, a skill many autistics develop throughout our need to script to get through our day to day life. She is considered strange. Her eccentricities are both odd but also wonderful. She's truly some piece of work, in the most positive way possible.
April is a little more interesting. At least to me. April is my favorite. April is very naive, very strange, and kind to a fault. She has her monologue about the butterflies. She is a little bit clingy, easy to say "I love you!" She's almost a stereotypical autistic woman.
However, I think Bobby is a tool. Company uses Bobby to force the audience to see things through a perspective that one could describe as neurodivergent.
Bobby is projected upon by the audience. He is not just a blank slate that puzzles his friends but also the ultimate emotional charge of the show (ending with Sondheim's masterful Being Alive.) We don't like him, maybe, but we do get him, we understand his arc and who he is. But we also don't quite understand the husband and wives either, much like Bobby, we're watching these people (who are representative of many of us) in bewilderment and distress. These characters are not out of the ordinary. Competitive couples like Sarah and Harry, anxious couples like Paul and Amy, and unhealthy couples like Jenny and David, are all a part of life. And Furth's phenomenal writing remains convincing enough for us to keep attention, but just like how Bobby perceives them, they're nonetheless strange.
As we sit in the audience, relating to Bobby, we also relate to the disconnect from the friends he feels. Just as Bobby doesn't understand how David can treat his wife that way, we don't. Just as Bobby is uncomfortable and confused with the competitive nature of Sarah and Harry and so are we. As Bobby is perplexed by how a couple like Susan and Peter could get divorced, so are we, despite them being us. We are seeing our own social conventions and normalities projected back at us as odd, illogical, and confusing. A perfect metaphor for the autistic and otherwise neurodivergent existence. Intimacy may be scary but so are the normal social conventions between married couples and between us to those we love. The rules don't seem to really make sense, the stories don't follow.
Company concludes with Bobby deciding that he cannot be afraid of intimacy if he wants to live his life. And through the reading, it seems that the show would conclude that Bobby should simply accept the social conventions that he (and we) don't understand or see as logical. I think the situation is more nuanced, rather than accept these things are logical, Bobby must accept that they are not everything. He must move past the oddities of these conventions, and embrace the social world as his own.