Meet the Choreographer Behind Marianne Elliott's Gender-Swapped Company Revival
After earning five-star reviews and four Olivier Awards in London’s West End, director Marianne Elliott’s radical take on Stephen Sondheim’s Company arrives on Broadway this month. Elliott (War Horse, Angels in America) has created a Company for our times, swapping Bobby the bachelor for Bobbie (played by Katrina Lenk), a woman contemplating settling down as she turns 35. Choreography comes from Liam Steel, a British director and choreographer who works across contemporary dance, theater, opera, television and film. He spoke to Dance Magazine about why restrictions can be liberating and what it’s like working with the legendary Patti LuPone.
What was your starting point for the choreography for
I didn’t want to take it down the normal musical theater route, the normal straw-boater-and-cane situation. It’s a psychological drama in many ways, Bobbie being stuck at this warped birthday party—it’s like a surreal nightmare. The designer Bunny Christie created this confined world of boxes that was between a haven and a prison, and she said, “You’ve got nowhere to move!” But that was liberating for me. In that opening number, the challenge of having 14 people in a two-square-meter box was completely exciting.
How does your particular dance background influence your work?
I was around at the beginning of the physical theater movement, working with David Glass Ensemble, Complicité and DV8. So it’s the experience of making movement that’s about communicating ideas. It always starts with “What do we want to say?” I’ve never been interested in how high someone can kick their leg. For me, it’s “Why are you kicking your leg?”
The big twist of the show is the gender switch that turns the original male lead, Bobby, into a woman, Bobbie. How did that affect your choreography?
I had an idea early on for the “Tick Tock” number. Normally it’s done with Bobby in bed with one of his girlfriends, and it becomes this fantasy with women dancing around him. I was like, “We ain’t doing anything like that!” I had an idea of multiple versions of Bobbie, all the different avenues she could go down, her biological clock, having children.
Patti LuPone was blisteringly good in the West End version, and she’s transferring to Broadway, too. What’s she like in the studio?
She’s amazing. You realize why she’s a legend—it’s her level of professionalism and discipline. She was by far the oldest member of the cast, but she went for it harder than some of the younger ones, and she’d had a hip replacement a couple of months before! She’s very self-effacing, there’s no sense of starriness, and she has an incredible sense of humor; we used to howl in rehearsal. She’s got a great potty mouth on her as well. She can swear like a trooper!