With ‘Company,’ Antonio Banderas brings Sondheim to Spain
By A.J. Goldmann
On a recent Friday night, a fashionable Madrid audience leaped to its feet at the end of a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” The crowd cheered the 40 onstage actors and musicians, but the most enthusiastic ovations were reserved for Antonio Banderas, the production’s director and star. For the past nearly three hours, the Spanish actor had crooned, belted and twirled his way through the first Spanish-language production of the groundbreaking 1970 musical.
Banderas’ “Company” started life a little more than a year ago in Málaga, the actor’s hometown in southern Spain, where he founded a musical theater company, Teatro del Soho, in 2019. After a stop in Barcelona this year, the production is ending its run in Madrid, where it is playing through Feb. 14, 2023, at the Teatro Albéniz.
“I actually am an actor because of musical theater and musical movies,” Banderas, 62, said in an interview the next day. As an adolescent in 1970s Málaga, he explained, he grew up with the great musicals of the era, including “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.”
That early love was the inspiration behind Teatro del Soho, a nonprofit that Banderas compared to the Public Theater in New York, which aims to bring musicals other than blockbuster Broadway fare to Spanish theatergoers. (The company’s most recent production is Stephen Schwarz’s “Godspell.”)
Over the past two decades, Madrid has emerged as the musical theater capital of the Spanish world. Among the 14 shows running there are “Tina,” “Mamma Mia!,” “We Will Rock You” and “The Lion King” (“El Rey León”). Now Banderas is trying to push the envelope with serious, complex works that are little-known here — and “Company” has been on Banderas’s mind for a long time.
In 2003, Banderas was starring in the musical “Nine” on Broadway, playing Guido, a filmmaker having a creative crisis. Banderas recalled Sondheim visiting his dressing room during the run, and drawing similarities between Guido and Bobby, the protagonist of “Company.” He also told Banderas that there was more to that show than met the eye: “I love to create plays with enigmas,” the actor recalled Sondheim saying.
After the meeting, Banderas said he immersed himself in Sondheim’s catalog. “Company” in particular became something of an obsession.
When “Company” premiered in 1970, it looked like nothing else on Broadway: Formally daring, and laced with irony, it is often described as a “concept musical” and has little plot to speak of. Instead, Sondheim and George Furth, who wrote the book, serve up a series of loosely connected scenes about a commitment-phobic bachelor and his friends.
Banderas’ main change to the book is an age switch for Bobby — the role he plays — from 35 to 50. The composer-lyricist signed off on that before his death in 2021 at age 91, Banderas said.
Everything in his production followed from having an older Bobby, Banderas said. The show’s vignettes are like hallucinatory episodes, as Bobby sifts through memories and dreams of his youth; regrets take on a haunting dimension because of “the proximity of death,” Banderas added.
“It was always very shocking to me how much everything was thoroughly focused on Bobby,” Banderas said. “Bobby is a charismatic character, but he’s also an egotistical coward.”
In Banderas’ staging, Bobby sometimes sits center stage as the large cast rotates around him. Behind them, the New York City skyline looms majestically. “I created a glittering universe and he’s in the center, as the sun,” Banderas said.
Banderas has cast most of the show’s other parts with local performers. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find this amount of actors and actresses in Spain,” for musical theater, he said. He also insisted on using the show’s original orchestration. “I have 26 musicians here, which is not profitable,” he said, but added, “I love that sound.” (For comparison, the 2021 Broadway revival of “Company” used a 14-person band.)
To create a convincing Spanish-language version, Banderas turned to Roser Batalla and Ignacio García May, a duo who had previously worked together on “A Chorus Line.”
“Every Sondheim is a challenge,” said Batalla, a translator and actress from Barcelona who was in a Catalan-language production of “Company” there 25 years ago. The lyrics and music are so closely bound in the show and, indeed, in all of Sondheim’s work, she added.
“You have to maintain not only the rhymes and syllables and the cadence of the music, but also give the information at the right point,” said Batalla, who has translated other Sondheim shows into Spanish and Catalan.
She recalled meeting Sondheim in Barcelona, in 1995, at a performance of “Sweeney Todd,” which she had translated into Catalan. “He said, ‘As long as all the ideas get to the audience, I’m OK with it.’ He never asked us for the back-translation of any of the shows,” she said.
“Company” holds some thorny problems for translators. Batalla pointed to “Getting Married Today,” a punishing, rapid-fire song for a hyperventilating bride — and a high point in most performances — as a particular challenge. “It’s very quick and it needs to be understood,” she said. Spanish had relatively few monosyllabic words to recreate the song’s patter, she added, but the language’s flexible syntax helped offset the difficulty.
She left some culturally and geographically specific references to 1970s New York in place, Batalla said: Since American culture is so dominant, those still resonate with Spanish audiences. “We’ve been seeing movies by Woody Allen all our life long,” she said.
May, a noted Spanish playwright, said the main challenge in translating the dialogue was finding a “high-class Spanish” that matched the snappy, urbane tone of the book. He weighed “every word, every verb, every nuance, so it could be as close to the English as possible,” he said.
Critics here have largely been convinced: The daily newspaper El País hailed the production as “one of the best musicals ever seen in Spain.” For Banderas, the reception is a validation of his passion and commitment.
“When we put together Teatro del Soho, it was to do the musicals that actually don’t get to Spain,” he said. In addition to his work there, Banderas recently teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to create Amigos Para Siempre, a joint venture to license, produce and develop theatrical work for the world’s Spanish-speaking markets.
Banderas called it an opportunity to “create a platform of Broadway in Spanish to the world.” “But it’s going to take time,” he added.
‘Company’ runs through Feb. 14, 2023, at the Teatro Albéniz, in Madrid; companyelmusical.es.