Limitations of gender-swapped theater: A closer look at West End’s ‘Company’ revival

Actors on a stage with large cast shadows
Chi Park/Staff

Women of theater, rejoice!

No, not because female actors and playwrights have finally achieved complete equality in the field. Unfortunately, that’s still a work in progress.

There is reason to hope, however, that more opportunities may be available to female-identifying actors in the near future as atypical casting becomes more common. The practice of gender-blind casting, for example — where a character typically portrayed by a male is portrayed by someone of a different gender without changes to the original character  — is hardly new, but is perhaps gaining more traction. Shakespearean plays are wonderful places to look for this; the Globe is one of the strongest leaders in this movement, producing a recent string of gender-blind plays under the leadership of artistic director Michelle Terry.

More intriguing is the rise of gender-swapped casting in which canonical characters are reimagined as a different gender. Just last summer, a production of “Oklahoma” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival made waves by substituting the two heterosexual couples for lesbian and gay romances.

This trend has especially swept through the West End in London, where theater giant Stephen Sondheim is getting a glossy new makeover with a revival of his musical “Company,” written alongside George Furth. Under the direction of Marianne Elliott, the story of Bobby, the perpetual bachelor, has been replaced with that of a woman, renamed “Bobbie” within the show. Critics were quick to praise the work, commenting that it brought a new perspective to an otherwise dated piece. “Here comes ‘Company,’ remade for today,” wrote one Variety reporter.

The enthusiasm over this revival is understandable to some extent. Bobbie’s storyline is meant to be a feminist victory, flipping on its head the tired narrative of a man who strings women along and can’t be tied down. Even the stage itself feels futuristic, with every sleek geometric shape and aggressive neon light screaming out “modernization!” You can almost see the imaginary tagline: “It’s the 21st century! Women can have commitment issues too!”

“Company,” however, has never been a celebration of the bachelor’s life. It’s the story of an emotionally distant protagonist who works through their fear of commitment and learns how to truly “want something,” as one of Bobby’s friends so succinctly puts it. For a male Bobby, this is a fairly standard narrative — a dusty and trite one perhaps, but grudgingly heartwarming nevertheless.

But what about Bobbie? Her future is a little less promising. On one hand, she gets her time in the limelight as a strong female protagonist who learns how to want something. On the other hand, that “something” turns out to be marriage. It’s almost as if women haven’t been hearing for centuries that marriage should be their end goal in life, especially when they get to an age as “old” as Bobbie’s 35 years.

Take “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” as an example. In this number, Bobbie is being bad-mouthed by her three hapless boyfriends (originally the three girlfriends of Bobby) who accuse her of stringing them along. As with other songs, Sondheim updated the lyrics to reflect these gender swaps, producing lines such as, “Dirty flirt / You feminist / I don’t understand / That time of month?” This is most likely meant to be a satirical jab at male entitlement — and it would be, if not for the fact that the rest of the cast is essentially telling Bobbie the same thing. Her friends may use nicer language, but they too attempt to convince her to put marriage on the agenda.

This cuts to the heart of the issue with gender-swapped productions. As nice as it would be to say that all roles can be rewritten as different genders, it’s not necessarily true. There are often new thematic questions that arise when a character is reworked: What relationships are affected? How does this change the power dynamic? What history or cultural narrative is evoked?

It may be a silly little number, but “You Can Drive A Person Crazy” evokes the resentment of all women who are tasked with extra emotional labor in their relationships; there’s something satisfying about watching a group of women vent their emotional frustrations, calling the blasé Bobby “a troubled person” and a “zombie” impersonating a human. That satisfaction is lost when the genders are swapped.

Granted, these issues of gender politics would be less consequential if the West End revival were at least making strides in equitable casting. After all, another female lead in a theater scene largely dominated by men should be considered a victory. But Bobbie’s rise came at a price. In addition to the protagonist’s gender-swap, four smaller roles were switched from women to men: the three boyfriends and Jamie (originally Amy), Paul’s groom to be. Jamie and Paul’s storyline is admittedly a nice touch, but it does raise a question: If Elliot and Sondheim were willing to showcase a gay couple, why not simply keep the three girlfriends for Bobbie? At the very least, it would maintain the gender balance of the show, and Bobbie could have her ultimate wish for marriage without falling into the typical heteronormative routine.

Instead, what could have been a radical reworking of Sondheim’s musical ended up dubiously progressive at best. While gender-swapped productions and other atypical casting styles have the potential to truly push boundaries in theater, they need to be approached with a greater level of consciousness and much more in-depth consideration.

Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].