Commenting on his musical Company in a PBS documentary, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim said, “Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” Sondheim’s worlding made for a groundbreaking musical where Broadway regulars could see themselves aestheticized, transformed into a representation of the human condition. But Company didn’t strive to change Broadway’s demographics, nor did it depict economically, sexually or racially diverse experience. Every performer was white and able bodied, and all could sing brilliantly in a minor key.
Broadway is still the holy grail for so many aspiring performers who first strutted their stuff in community recitals and grade school shows. And although there has been much cultural progress, Sondheim makes it clear that most professional theater is often an even stricter application of community standards. When I was five years I was a shrimp in my Peabody, Massachusetts community ballet recital. I plié-ed my heart out among other pink leotard and tutu clad shrimp. Parents clapped for me even as they cheered a bit more loudly for their own dancing crustacean. But I didn’t get to solo, and that denial made it clear that I wasn’t good enough to be seen alone onstage. Those experiences cut deep. Community recitals are a training ground where we begin to understand which bodies are valued as virtuosic in relation to ability, capacity, class, race, sexual and gender identity, how they are privileged onstage, and how that value system is transformed into aesthetic “taste.”
But recitals are more than that. In the presence of other human shrimp, I learned the pleasures of becoming a company. Recitals endure and people perform in them for the pleasure, to quote Jean Luc Nancy, of “being singular plural.” And this is where theater can both model and organize social change. For the hour or two when I belonged to a crustacean chorus, I was something other than myself and very much myself. I felt special and felt like a shrimp in an ocean of another’s devising. As Sondheim would have it, I got a taste of what was possible when I was “side by side by side,” other crustacean singularities and folded into a fleeting performative assembly.
There is political potential in this. In a community recital, the audience is expected to devalue critical judgment and shower the performer with love and support. But critical judgment can never be fully suspended. How could it? We’ve been trained to judge other bodies from way way back when we were little shrimp. But community recitals do privilege empathic reception toward the performers and the others in the audience with us. As conceived by Jérôme Bel, Gala engages that empathy as it makes the audience reflect on how we use our critical judgment and to what end. Drawing from what is common and familiar in transnational culture to blur and reconfigure assemblies and divides, Gala is the joy of singing, dancing and watching categories of people transform into singularities that change, and recombine, and recombine again by means of performance. Gala becomes a theater of being singular plural, of “company company,” an example of what Performance Studies scholar José Munoz identifies as a “concrete utopia.”
Debra Levine, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi and affiliated faculty at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. She would like to gratefully acknowledge her own “Company Company” — her 2016 NYUAD “Thinking Theater” class who accompanied her to Singapore to see Gala at the Victoria Theater, and who generously shared their insights, which greatly influenced this essay.