Rosalie Craig says it shouldn’t be considered radical for a woman to be put at the centre of a story about a 30-something playing the field.
The theatre actress plays commitment-phobic Bobbie in the gender-swapped version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Company.
The part of Bobbie – a New Yorker resolutely avoiding marriage despite being surrounded by friends pushing for a wedding – was originally written for a man.
Director Marianne Elliott dreamt up the gender-swap idea two years ago, and immediately thought of Craig for the lead role.
Elliott says she had dinner with Sondheim at his house to try to persuade him to let her adapt the show (during which she tried not to be intimidated by his anecdotes about Katharine Hepburn, who used to live next door).
Although the renowned composer “wasn’t keen at first”, she talked him round, eventually workshopping the piece to gain his final approval.
So why the swap? Craig is clear about her own motivation: “It’s important to put a female story right at the heart of the West End.
“It’s a great update to Stephen Sondheim’s original production of Company and it highlights the fact that we need to talk about women in their 30s who aren’t married and are childless. Whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing – it needs to be talked about.
“By switching the gender in this way, in this particular piece, it’s an interrogation of that and how society feels about it.”
Craig – who has appeared in productions including Finding Neverland, The Ferryman and As You Like It, and won an Evening Standard Theatre award last year, for best musical performance for her role in Company – says it is just the kind of conversation we need to be having in the arts.
“If it’s okay for a guy to be single, sleeping around and having a fantastic time, shouldn’t that be the same for a woman?”
For the 37-year-old actress, the need for more female-driven stories is two-fold.
Roles tend to dry up as actresses gets older – Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench are the exception and not the rule.
Craig goes on: “As a female in this profession – and on a human level – to know that’s real life out there; this is not a radical conversation, it’s an everyday thing.
“There are lots of single women in their 30s who feel this pressure from their friends and from society and are constantly being asked what’s wrong with them. Why aren’t they settled down? Why don’t they have children?
“I just can’t imagine that conversation being the same for a man at a dinner party. He would probably be celebrated for being single and having a fantastic time, while a woman is looked on as being slightly odd and strange for wanting those things.”
The response to the re-imagined musical has been positive, from critics and the public alike.
Craig explains: “Every day via social media or at the stage door there will be women in their 30s saying, ‘This is me, this is my story! Thank you so much’. They feel like they are finally being celebrated and not being told it’s a bad thing.”
As for comparisons made about Bobbie and fiction’s most famous single lady, Craig says she understands the juxtaposition: “My Bobbie’s having such a good time, she’s got three guys on the go and she’s just living the life.
“I think the Bridget Jones element comes from the loneliness and the pressure from her friends and society. I don’t sing a song with a hairbrush and a bottle of wine but I do drink quite a lot of whisky during the show, so maybe that’s another element.”
Loneliness is a key theme in the ensemble production.
Craig explains: “We don’t talk about loneliness in this age of social media, where we’re supposed to portray that we’re busy and happy and having a wonderful time. But ultimately Bobbie is extremely lonely at times. It’s an interrogation of the human condition.”
Perhaps rather than cross-casting at the heart of this production being the radical element, the real shocker is the blessing given to it by its notoriously protective composer.
Craig agrees: “I think people’s surprise came from the fact that Sondheim had been updated, and that he’s allowed it to happen and that it was possible for it to be flipped and made so current.
“I’d hope that people aren’t astonished that it’s because it’s a woman and aren’t reeling about the fact there’s a woman on the stage having these conversations.”
In one particularly pleasing scene, turning stereotype on its head, three guys lament not being able to get the girl because she refuses to commit.
Comparing the tone of the script to TV shows such as Friends and Sex And The City, despite dating back nearly 50 years, director Elliott says it’s all down to the writing.
Craig describes the 88-year-old composer as “amazing” and as “bright and sparky, and as involved as he ever was”, and pretty hands-on when giving notes at the recent cast recording.
“He was there in the studio giving us the most amazing notes you’ll ever get in your lifetime.”
Another important update to the musical is the addition of a gay relationship, with an on-stage gay wedding.
It may be a woman at the centre of the story, but the production is keen to explore different aspects of relationships along the way.
Changes to the actual book, script and lyrics have been minimal: “It’s been tweaked here and there – a ‘him’ to a ‘her’ and other character’s singing songs – but fundamentally his piece is intact. It shows what an amazing composer Sondheim is that it’s still so relevant now.”
Craig is equally effusive about working with musical theatre star Patty LuPone, who returns to London’s West End after 25 years away.
“I genuinely haven’t had an on-stage relationship with another actor like this. Our scene (where LuPone sings Ladies Who Lunch) is one of my favourite parts in the whole evening. She’s as sensational off-stage as she is on. She’s just a living legend.”
:: Company is showing at the Gielgud Theatre until the end of March, and the London cast recording is out now