Another gay Bobby?: Neil Patrick Harris to star in Company at the Phil

Neil Patrick Harris, it was announced today, will play the lead role of Robert in the New York Philharmomic's April concert production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1970 musical, Company. The relevant question raised by this casting is not—pace the absurd uproar earlier this year about Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises—whether an openly gay actor like Harris can play a womanizing character like Bobby; Harris has earned four Emmy nominations as the wolfish Barney Stinson on TV's How I Met Your Mother. Rather, the question is whether Bobby can be effectively embodied by an actor who isn't gay.

This is not a new issue, but one that has been debated for decades by fans and detractors of Company alike. In this Upstaged post about Ral Esparza's coming-out interview in the New York Times in 2006, while he was playing Bobby in the John Doyle revival of Company, I noted the peculiar history of this role:

"To play the ostensibly straight Bobby, it seems, a gay actor may be required. The straight Dean Jones originated the role in 1970, and was never comfortable in it; he was released from his contract soon after the show opened, and replaced with the gay Larry Kert (who became the only replacement actor to ever be nominated for a Tony). History nearly repeated itself in 1995, when the Roundabout revival of Company—starring the straight, lukewarmly received Boyd Gaines—failed to transfer to a longer run because the producer of the proposed production wanted to replace Gaines with gay actor Michael Rupert. In the 1998 biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life, the composer said that he only time he had ever believed his own Company finale, "Being Alive," was when he heard it sung by the late, gay David Carroll. And another gay actor, John Barrowman, earned widespread raves for his 2002 Bobby at the Kennedy Center. Esparza has earned his place in their company." (I forgot to add at the time that Sondheim's first choice for the role had been Anthony Perkins.)

So is Bobby himself gay? That's a complicated question. To get lit-crit for a moment: On the level of denotation, Bobby is and must be straight in order for the show to mean what it intends to mean; but in the more shadowy realm of connotation, the character is relentlessly codified as gay. (The play's husbands are happy to let the terribly attractive and charming Bobby take their wives to the opera, because he is "a flirt, but never a threat.") Critics and audiences picked up on this ambiguity from the start—reviewing the original production, Martin Gottfried wrote that it was "confused by hints of homosexuality"—and more recent productions have added a scene that addresses the question head-on by having Bobby reject the advances of one of his male friends. Yet the character of Bobby continues to send, at best, mixed signals.

To be clear, it's not a question for me of Bobby, the character, being secretly queer—if his commitment problems with women could be so easily explained, the show would crumble—but rather of the entire show being, in some sense, a product of the closet. The life experience of Sondheim and Furth, both gay at a time when that could not be publicized, is inscribed in their central character in ways they almost certainly did not intend, but which are legible nonetheless. (This show about an outsider among couples was adapted, after all, from playlets that Furth had written at the suggestion of his therapist, and Sondheim has described the action as taking place "perhaps on a psychiatrist's couch.") Bobby's straightness seems a requirement of the plot but not of the character; and perhaps, in some ineffable way, that is why gay men posing as straight on stage have connected with it most effectively. I think the casually out Neil Patrick Harris might do the nervously indeterminate Bobby proud.