Company The Movie: Can Dr. Doogie and Stephen Colbert Sing Sondheim?

While theater critics turned up their noses at the TV-ification of a Broadway classic, the film version of Stephen Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris' April stage show is one of the most satisfying Sondheim productions in years

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Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

Martha Plimpton and Stephen Colbert perform a song from "Company" on stage during the 65th Annual Tony Awards at the Beacon Theater in New York on June 12, 2011

It seemed like a celebrity stunt: a Broadway classic revived in concert form for a few nights and featuring a cast of, eww, television stars. Neil Patrick Harris may be suited for blithe hosting chores on the Tony Awards, and the Emmy show and the Spike TV Video Games Awards and the TV Land Awards and the World Magic Awards, but he’s no Raul Esparza. (Who? A gifted if occasionally strident stalwart of Broadway musicals.) Whatever ballast and uplift Jon Cryer and Christina Hendricks may lend to their Men shows — Two-and-a-Half and Mad — they can’t be expected to Act and Sing at the same time. Martha Plimpton can play a wily rube on Raising Hope, but not a Manhattan sophisticate of the John Lindsay era. As for the first-ever collaboration of two legendary Stephens, Sondheim and Colbert, that promised little more than the musical-theater equivalent of truthiness.

When the New York Philharmonic presented Sondheim’s Company for four sold-out April evenings at Lincoln Center, the guardians of official Broadway culture nearly drowned out the music with their muttering about the TV vandals of storming the Great White Way cathedral. At the New York Times, theater critic Charles Isherwood’s nose went north in Olympian disdain. “Accomplished singing was all but absent,” he sniffed in an opinion piece titled, “Are Musicals Losing Their Voices?” The how-dare-they? contempt was as strong and searing as if the Kardashians had come to Broadway in Three Sisters.

(SEE if Broadway hates Stephen Sondheim.)

Now, for a week starting this evening, in more than 400 movie houses, the Company concert is on the big screen — undoubtedly with the same goal in mind: to sell tickets to fans of the TV stars. (Broadway got the message: the other night it lavished nine Tony awards on the South Park team’s The Book of Mormon.) Primed by the Times, I expected an ordeal. Do you know the story about the woman who approached Igor Stravinsky after one of his concerts, saying, “The music was out of my depths,” and Stravinsky replied, “No, dear, out of your shallows”? Well, that’s where I thought Harris, Hendricks, Cryer, Plimpton and Colbert would be: neck deep in musical amateurism.

Instead, I found this Company to be one of the most satisfying visions of the show I’ve seen, dating back to the 1970 original. Conductor Paul Gemignani — whose work with Sondheim extends back to Follies in 1971, the year after Company — wields his baton with a magician’s flair. More impressively, director Larry Price (who co-starred 30 years ago in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along) has managed what Casey Nickolaw pulled off in his 2007 revival of Follies at City Centers Encores!: he infused a sustaining life into the libretto and made the show an organic whole, a play with music, not just a collection of the master’s greatest hits.

(READ: Corliss on the Encores! Concert revival of Follies)

George Furth’s book is a series of sketches revealing the sour ironies of domestic life as seen by Robert, the 35-year-old bachelor friend of five married couples; the pieces might have been written for The Carol Burnett Show, but without the comforting climactic sentiment. This time the skits seemed heftier and sharper, thanks to the delivery of what turned out to be a splendidly chosen cast, Broadway and boob-tube veterans alike.

In a couple of ways, the show is a time-capsule period piece. Sondheim’s score, the pop-musicaliest of his career, holds echoes of the jazzy rhythms of Burt Bacharach, whose Promises, Promises was in its second year on Broadway when Company opened. Furth’s script is a comic portrait, etched in acid on velour, of a time when most folks who wanted to live together got married. In 1970 Furth could depict his upper-middle-class couples as engaging in overdrinking and illegal drugging, but he could not explain Robert’s single status with the obvious answer: he’s gay (as Sondheim is and Furth, who died in 2008, was). In the Lincoln Center revival, there’s a moment when Craig Bierko, as Peter, asks the proudly uncloseted Harris, “Bob, have you ever had a homosexual experience?” And Harris, who in his opening number on Sunday’s Tony show had drolly proclaimed that Broadway is “not just for gays any more,” shoots the audience a deadpan stare that prods a knowing, extratextual laugh.

(READ: When Sondheim’s Into the Woods ventured into Central Park)

But people, even today, get married and stay that way; and Company is as acute as ever in its ambivalence about matrimony. Most of the five couples get through life by picking little fights, ragging their spouses, raising the insult to a minor art form, and being, generally, miserable. (The only happy pair just got separated but still lives together.) “I have everything,” Cryer’s Davis says. “Except freedom. Which is everything.” Yet when Joanne (Patti LuPone), the eldest, sourest wife, asks Robert, “Why get married?” he says, “For company?” Furth and Sondheim see desperation in both the single and the married state: solitary confinement vs. having someone, the same damn one, to share your cell in a life sentence where the only parole is divorce.

Song after song describes this clashing ambivalence. Sondheim sometimes provides paired numbers expressing opposing viewpoints, as when the men sing Robert the waltz medley “Have I Got a Girl for You” (a hot item who might also be wife material) and “Whaddaya Wanna Get Married For” (which squeezes sour grapes out of married bile). In two interlocking vaudeville-style songs, “Side by Side by Side” extols the joys of marriage and friendship, while “What Would We Do Without You” praises Robert as the single friend the condemned can complain to and envy. The contradictions are brilliantly crystallized in two other numbers. “Sorry-Grateful” is a meditation on marital tradeoffs (“Good things get better / Bad get worse / Wait, I think I meant that in reverse”); “Marry Me a Little” searches for a golden, probably impossible ideal of emotional moderation (“Marry me a little / Love me just enough / Cry, but not too often / Play, but not too rough”).

(SEE: the best plays and musicals of the decade)

Sondheim bundles up these compromises and fantasies for most of the show, then releases them in a final solo, “Being Alive,” in which Robert realizes that any sustained form of intimacy (“Someone to hold you too close / Someone to hurt you too deep”) is both a blessing and a curse, demanding a masochistic or heroic commitment that not he’s not suited or ready for. Marriage, Company suggests, is the worst way to live — except for all the other ways. The play ends where it began, with Robert’s 35th birthday, except that now his friends have not thrown a surprise party for him, and he’s left wondering if being alone is really being alive. The smile that flits across Harris’s face in the second before the final blackout indicates that the answer is… yes, a little.

An ancillary pleasure of a concert revival is the congestion of on-stage talent that could not be corralled for a long run. Katie Finneran, a Tony winner with her steal-stealing role in last year’s Promises, Promises revival, commits further light larceny with a hilariously manic, flawlessly articulated rendition of the insane patter song “Not Getting Married.” Anika Noni Rose, who won a Tony in 2004 for Caroline, or Change, does passionate justice to Sondheim’s New York anthem “Another Hundred People.” Jennifer Laura Thompson, late of Urinetown and Wicked, brings a delightful naïveté to her stoned-on-brownies scene. The big stage star here is LuPone, Broadway’s diva of divas — and a taste I have yet to acquire in the 32 years since I first saw her in Evita. Isherwood cited LuPone’s “Ladies Who Lunch” as a lesson in Broadway singing. He means she really belts it out; but for LuPone, belting is like the application of a strap to a naughty child’s backside. Instead, give me the version of “Ladies Who Lunch” done last year on Broadway by Dame Edna Everage — the drag artiste Barry Humphries. Now that was showbiz panache.

(READ: How Encores! truly revived Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along)

And the TV interlopers? For the most part, they do fine. Only Colbert is subpar, and it kills me to say that, since on The Colbert Report he’s a magnificent comic actor, satirizing his egotistical right-wing blowhard TV character even as he seems to live inside the faux-Colbert. On stage, though, deprived of his trademark spectacles and wearing a red sweater that does not compliment his physique, he looks awkward, and he stalks “Sorry-Grateful” like a barroom Irish tenor revving up for “Danny Boy.” But it’s a distinctly minor role; and Plimpton, as his wife, fully commanded her character’s withering haughtiness. She ought to come back to Broadway tout de suite. Hendricks, playing a flight attendant who lands in Robert’s bed, gives a wonderfully innocent reading of a dim, beautiful babe, which more than atones for the tentative approach to her one duet, “Barcelona.” That memory will fade; Hendricks’ monologue will continue to warm the heart.

It’s true that Harris, who sang for real in the Josh Whedon musical comedy Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, doesn’t attack “Being Alive” with the full-throated despair Esparza imparted in the 2006 revival. (Then again, for that production each singer-actor also had to play a musical instrument and tote it around. It was as if the high-school glee club suddenly were drafted to be the marching band.) But not every song has to be an aria, especially not one delivered by the even-tempered Robert. Esparza tore out his entrails in that final number; Harris gets the character’s loneliness across without eviscerating himself. His ingratiating personality also shows (as Esparza’s edgier performance did not) why everyone would want Robert as a friend. An actor-singer with the emphasis on the former, Harris is perfectly in tune with director Price’s masterly balancing act.

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Neil Patrick Harris)

I thought I’d be sorry that this mashup of Broadway and TV actors would be available for viewing by the movie masses. Instead, I’m profoundly grateful. It makes great summer company.