In Good Company

In notes from her own journal, a triply talented performer gives an insider's view of the revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical.

by Kristin Huffman

Last November, Kristin Huffman (GMu89) made her Broadway debut in the revival of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy about love, marriage and sex in the city. Under the direction of noted British director John Doyle, the entire cast of actors-singers also performs as the orchestra. As Sarah, the karate-chopping wife, Huffman plays the flute, piccolo and sax.

Doyle’s revival of Company first opened at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in early 2006. It was attended by the show’s original creators, Sondheim and Northwestern alumnus George Furth (C55), who wrote the book (and won a Tony Award for it in 1971). Then a group of Broadway producers picked up Doyle’s entire Cincinnati cast and brought the show to New York City’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Huffman kept a detailed journal during Company rehearsals both in Cincinnati and New York. Here are some excerpts from her essays, which she hopes to eventually publish in a book.

January 31, Cincinnati

New shows always start with a “meet the cast” opening, but this was the largest “meet and greet” event I have ever attended. There were at least 100 people there. The cast itself numbers 14, but there were backstage hands, sponsors, board members, executives and the show’s British director and “star of the moment in musical theater,” John Doyle. After mingling we began the first rehearsal.

Doyle talked to us for half an hour describing his vision for Company, which boiled down to this: “Let’s explore this together, and we’ll see what happens.” Because of his charm, humor and obvious brilliance, we nodded like overwhelmed kindergarteners on the first day of school, soaking up every word. To let us know that he was human after all, he intimated that it took him an hour to pick out what he was going to wear on our first day of rehearsal. He wanted to make the “right impression.” We giggled nervously.

In a typical musical rehearsal we singers and actors would have been our usual neurotic selves. But in Doyle’s production of Company we are also responsible for performing the orchestral parts as musicians. Given this highly unusual set of circumstances, we were in the category of abnormally aberrant neurotics.

The director left, and we began the musical portion of our first rehearsal with Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the musical director, something of a star in her own right. We began with just our voices, singing the opening number. It’s pretty tricky, so we were all flexing our singing muscles, hoping to compensate for the first instrumental rehearsal that followed. Then we picked up our instruments and plunged in. Much to our surprise, our instrumental work sounded pretty damn good.

February 1, Cincinnati

I should have known things were going too well. The cast and several board members were invited to the artistic director’s gorgeous home for dinner one night. Being on another new diet, I was starved and promptly bellied up to the spread of food. After loading my plate with pasta and salad, I sat down on the couch in the kitchen and promptly dropped some pasta sauce on the upholstery. Hoping to keep the “good impressions” from rehearsal going, I secretly took a little water and put it in a paper napkin to gently rub away the stain. I had not noticed that the napkin was black. Who serves things with black napkins? Black napkins that bleed on the stain so that my mistake on the couch was now more colorful! More than a bit flummoxed by this faux pas, I stuck a pillow over it, shoved the rest of my food down and hightailed it out of the party.

When I arrived back at my hotel room I was greeted with a notice on the door stating that the maintenance man had been in the room because of the eggs I had left boiling on the stove. They had burned dry and smoked up the room while I was gone. I called the hotel manager to say how sorry I was and that it would never happen again. And then I suddenly realized what had happened. My multitasking skills had hit their natural saturation point. I can only sing, act and play three instruments at a time. Anything else, like boiling eggs or eating, would have to go on hold for a while.

February 2, Cincinnati

Here’s the picture. Imagine a cast of actors who have been together a day and a half and who have only really played a few tunes from the show with their instruments and the music director. Most of us believed that we would get a few more days to go over the music before we had to face the director and get this puppy on its feet. Now imagine the shocked look on our faces when we are asked to play the music and sing from memory while Doyle gives us stage directions. Our faces are paralyzed with fear.

It is almost impossible to play the flute, walk around and hold music at the same time. The damn trumpet players can play with one hand and hold the music with the other. Not so the violinists, cellists, oboists, bassists, French horn players and flutists! We actually got through the rehearsal, and it sounded good. I can now claim the ability to see notes on a page from about five feet away. The problem is that once you have to move to a different area of the stage, you have to rely on short-term visual memory.

The director likes to work very fast. He doesn’t call it blocking, because he doesn’t want us to be locked into anything. He explains that the feeling of being “blocked” is a negative way to think about the experience. So instead we explore. We try things. We play. It’s all great, except we are trying to do it off-book — without a script!

I can’t explain how it happened, but everyone made it work. Perhaps the director just empowered us to do things we never thought possible. Doyle explains his ideas. He talks things out. He tells us where to start, and then … we just kind of … go. We play. We sing. We act. Miraculously, we move around.

The director somehow shapes a beautiful song out of our fumbling and mumbling. You begin to think of your instrument as part of your character’s persona, saying things with it that your character would never say aloud. Somehow you remember your vocal line, but before you can congratulate yourself, you have a flute line to play, and you have totally forgotten what key you are in. At one point I just sat on a box on the set and smiled stupidly because I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to sing or play. I’d even forgotten what song we were working on. Everyone else was having such moments, but they came at different times, so that there was always someone who knew where we were. That gives new luster to the word “company.”

February 20, Cincinnati

Today it’s back to intense acting, singing and playing. There is no time to let your attention wander. In this show you must pay constant attention because everyone is on stage the entire show.

Doyle’s approach is to experiment with everything. Starting with a certain number of props, he takes pieces away, one by one, until there is only one thing left that you absolutely need to tell your story. Nothing can get in the way of the text.

Once he designated the four corners of the stage as fall, winter, summer, spring, with instructions to go to the season descriptive of our character. Then he tried the same four-corner exercise designated as soprano, alto, tenor, bass. This exercise was not so much about the voice part we sang but where our character’s natural voice resided. Far from being silly acting games, these exercises help us get to know our characters in a memorable way and each other’s characters as well.

Another time Doyle tried to help one of the actors play a scene more matter-of-factly, with less “sentimentality.” Although it was a very heartfelt scene, when she played it more matter-of-factly, it made us really feel for her. Once she got back to her seat, she said to me, “I guess I just see more in the scene than he does.” I told her that when she simplified it, we as the audience got to see it all instead of her imposing it on us. When you see that technique work on someone else, it makes all the sense in the world. While you are using the technique yourself, you feel like you aren’t acting at all.

Another actress told me, “Well, I have just decided to abandon any ‘back story’ I might have had for my character and just be myself.” And that is really the trick. Just be yourself in this character’s set of circumstances. I have heard that the real job of a director is to cast his or her show well. The more I get to know this cast, the more I see why that is true. Either we are subtly becoming our characters or we are getting comfortable enough to show our real selves to each other. Either way, the effect is that the characters become real, rather than simply played.

Whatever seems faked is out. Whatever distracts from the text is out. After about 10 minutes into the musical, even the instruments no longer seem novel but are instead an extension of the characters. You accept the fact that Sarah carries around a flute and Harry plays the trumpet. And because the cast accepts that the instrument is part of our personality, the audience accepts it, too.

March 11, Cincinnati

In this production of Company, the show opens with spotlights facing straight down on each of our faces. Doyle says that if the audience is thinking, they will see those beams of light as the skyscrapers of New York, with our faces peering out. He is challenging them to think, to work, from the very start of the show.

There are no backdrops to tell the audience where the action takes place, and we don’t use much beyond ourselves and our instruments to tell this story. A cymbal becomes an appetizer tray. The flute sound is the telephone answering beep. The drums are played as thunder. There are no special sound effects from the stage manager’s control panel.

Will the audience get that this show is all in Bobby’s (the main character) head? Will they understand that the reverb on our voices signifies his dream? Will they be able to imagine that Bobby has had sex with April while both actors remained fully clothed? Will they get that the instruments are part of the storytelling and not just a gimmick? That is asking a lot.

I think the director has set up the musical beautifully, so that the storytelling is wonderfully clear. Under Doyle’s direction we’ve become convinced that this dose of dramatic yet simplistic storytelling will force the audience into an understanding of this story. The approach is like tough love for the audience, but our goal is to jar them into feeling something.

March 13, Cincinnati

He’s leaving us. John Doyle is going home to London. Normally directors do not stay past the opening of the show, so his departure is not a surprise to any of us, but we will miss him profoundly.

Often directors yell or cajole or tease to make an actor do their bidding. But Doyle has a way of quietly encouraging and guiding.

Doyle had been trying to get me to walk a bit faster around the perimeter of the stage while I play my flute on the song “Sorry-Grateful.” I usually take a note right away, but I was having trouble speeding up my walk. John finally just walked beside me at a faster clip, which forced me to keep pace, and he said, “Oh, I see, it’s hard to walk at a much faster tempo than the song.” After that I never walked too slowly again.

He trusts us to make it all work. Yet he never leaves us on our own. He is very careful with his selection of words, because our creativity can be stifled if someone makes us feel stupid or wrong.

Doyle himself used to play the cello, so he knows how to speak our musical language. He was an actor, and so he knows our neuroses and thought processes. He is a sensitive person, and yet he knows how to concentrate on the “work” and not let his own ego get in the way of it. With his example we are led gently but firmly.

Editor’s note: After a monthlong run at the Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati, Company opened Nov. 29 on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

November 23, New York City

It is a ritual for me to get up on Thanksgiving morning and watch the Macy’s parade from beginning to end. But after waking up to a cold rainy day and realizing it is our only day off until we open on Broadway in a week, I am not mourning my missed Macy’s parade … that much.

As per my director’s instruction, I am trying not to analyze my performance. I am just trying to enjoy “Turkey Day,” listing the many reasons I have to be thankful. But I am also flooded with memories of the gigs I did that led up to this week.

There were, to be sure, many fun and educational experiences. But there were also countless “paying your dues” gigs — outdoor theaters where I competed with traffic and dogs and the occasional airplane overhead, dinner theaters where we actors were housed in close quarters and shared kitchens but got to eat the same buffet dinner provided for the show’s guests, one Sound of Music production for an outdoor opera company that even had noisy peacocks to drown us out.

I learned how to ignore the most obvious distractions in those gigs. There were so many performances where I learned how to deal with other performers and directors and agents. I can’t even say I’m sorry that I had all those crazy experiences instead of going right to Broadway, because I don’t think doing this type of show would work with performers who weren’t a little seasoned. It was a chance to learn and make mistakes in a less spotlighted arena. You learn what not to do as much as what to do. Not only do you grow in your technique, but you also realize how you need to treat other people and how to adapt to different situations with grace.

In the end I think I am more thankful now because I remember what it took to finally make it here.

Postscript: After the show opened, during a quiet moment in the musical a man in the audience could be heard asking his wife: “Are they singing or is that fake, too?” Instead of being insulted I realized it was a wonderful compliment. He could not believe that this 14-member cast could act, sing and become the orchestra as well. Sometimes I still can’t believe it!

Kristin Huffman (GMu89) is an actor, singer, voice teacher and freelance writer who lives in Milford, Conn. She is a former Miss Ohio and a runner-up in the Miss America Pageant in 1990. She continues playing Sarah in Company’s open-ended run on Broadway.

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