REVIEW: Great Performances brings the world of theater to distant audiences | TV

If you’ve been wondering what got many people through the pandemic, it’s shows like Great Performances on PBS.

The anthology (TV’s longest) provided a window into a closed world, bringing award-winning plays, concerts and musicals to people who couldn’t access.

For people living in parts of the country where performances aren’t available even in good times, the series has been a godsend.

This Friday you will see why.

In Keeping Company with Sondheim, you’ll learn why the composer Stephen Sondheim was such a key architect in reinventing Broadway. When he introduced Company in 1970, it was unlike anything theatergoers had seen. It wasn’t really a “book” musical, it was a series of vignettes put together to show a man turning 35 processing the advice of his friends. They couldn’t understand why he wasn’t married. They didn’t know what he was afraid of. And yet her example was sufficient proof.

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The show featured a high-tech set (it had an elevator!) and those impossible lyrics that required speed and precision. Company swept away the Tonys, gave new relevance to Elaine Stritch, and set the stage for other game-changers like A Little Night Music, Follies, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George.

Through interviews with Sondheim experts (and peers), Keeping Company reveals how he completed the hat — and how Marianne Elliott breathed new life into Company this year with a revival that changed things. Bobbie, in the current Broadway show, is a woman trying to dodge the minefields of marriage. Other characters have changed too (Amy is Jamie now, but he can still sing the tongue-twisting “Not Getting Married Today”) and the set has a different vibe, a different vibe.

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Originally staged in London, the new “Company” was about to open in New York when the coronavirus pandemic hit. That’s what slowed this show and every other show on Broadway. Producers feared they wouldn’t get the cast back (Tony winner Patti Lu Pone and Katrina Lenk-Star) or the ability to reopen. But as the documentary shows, “Company” made it back and, yes, Sondheim showed up for one of the previews.

He died just days later.

Today the show is nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Revival. That

PBS special chronicles hitting the streets back and also digging into the swoon of Sondheim. Veterans of Company Issue 1 discuss the show’s evolution and their affection for its creator.

Sondheim also weighs in and yes, there’s plenty of revival numbers to choose from.

For theater lovers who dream of seeing this company, it’s a great introduction and a great behind-the-scenes tour.

But that’s what most Great Performances offerings are – invitations to a world you didn’t know you loved. Once you get hooked, you want to see more.

Earlier this month, the series has featured full productions of Anything Goes and Merry Wives. The documentary “Company” will add another color to the palette.

“Great Performances” airs Fridays on PBS. Keeping Company with Sondheim airs May 27.

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