‘Company’ producer strives to keep it together

Like every theater producer, Chris Harper, who’s behind the buzzy London revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” is bucking up his cast, holding his investors together, and waiting for Broadway, dark since March 12, to light up again.

That’s a handful, but it takes a back seat to his No. 1 priority: raising his twins, Martha and Barnaby, who turn 4 this month. Harper, a single parent, rented his apartment in London and moved his family to New York last fall. He planned to stay through June, perhaps picking up a Tony or two. “We were well on our way to becoming New Yorkers,” he tells me. “My son is obsessed with the Statue of Liberty.” They were even starting to sprinkle American English into their vocabulary. “Daddy, can we put the rubbish in the trash?” they asked.

Directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Katrina Lenk as a female Bobbie, and Patti LuPone, knocking back a vodka stinger and singing “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the show began previews March 2 to full houses at the Jacobs Theatre, where it grossed nearly $800,000 that week. But Harper began to wonder just how fast the coronavirus was spreading, especially after the Broadway League recommended that no visitors be allowed backstage after the show.

Then Cynthia Nixon, the politically connected, former candidate for governor, attended a preview. She had tickets for opening night, but told Harper and LuPone, “I wanted to do something fun before the city is locked down.”

“I was in a state of shock,” Harper says. “We’re theater people. Everything in our bones says the show must go on.”

The League wrestled with the issue through the second week of March before abruptly announcing that Thursday that Broadway would close. “It was a unanimous decision, and the right one,” Harper says. “But I have to say I shed a tear as I walked out of that meeting.”

He headed to the theater, where the creative team was still refining the show. Harper pulled himself together and told the company that Broadway was closing until April 12.

(It’s going to be longer than that. Theater sources say the League will soon announce that Broadway will be dark until further notice. Producers quietly are saying they won’t be back until June or July.)

Harper e-mailed Sondheim with the news. Sondheim replied with a “jolly e-mail reminding us to wash our hands,” Harper says.

Harper then had to tell his two budding New Yorkers they were going back to London. “If I get sick, I need to be near my family,” he says. His apartment rented, he and the kids have been camping out in his best friend’s house. He was hoping to come back to New York in two weeks, but, as with all of us, his plans are up in the air.

The cast continues to rehearse every Thursday on Zoom, running scenes and singing songs. “Patti goes full out,” says Harper. “She’s amazing.”

On March 22 — Sondheim’s 90th birthday, and what was to be the show’s opening night — the company held a cocktail party on Zoom.

Harper, who once headed up the marketing department at the National Theatre in London, formed his production company with Elliott in 2016. He produced “War Horse,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and the recent Broadway revival of “Angels in America.”

But “Company” may be his favorite production of all, mostly because it was inspired by Martha and Barnaby. They were born in Portland, Ore., to a surrogate mother, and arrived 10 weeks before they were due. When Harper got the phone call, he raced off to see them.

“I was scared, and so I did what everybody does when in moments of anxiety and fear,” he says. “I turned to Stephen Sondheim.” He listened to “Being Alive,” the show’s 11 o’clock number, on the way to the hospital. That got him thinking about a revival.

Harper says his investors are sticking by the show, although he concedes that the longer Broadway remains dark, the harder it will be to restart the show. “We’re keeping the spirits up,” he says.
Is he confident that “Company” can return?

“Try stopping us,” he says.

“Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” airs weekdays on WOR Radio 710.

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