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Returning to Portland: Producer and Father of Twins Behind Broadway’s ‘Company’

There is a special behind-the-scenes story of the musical comedy “Company,” the next and final show of the 2023-24 Broadway in Portland season. This tale involves twins born prematurely by surrogacy, an anxious parent from the United Kingdom, a gender-switching role, and a happy ending.

When producer Chris Harper returns to Portland to watch his revival of Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s “Company,” July 16-21 at Keller Auditorium, it’ll bring back a lot of memories.

“Portland is so very special to me,” Harper said.

Living in London some eight years ago, Harper wanted to be a parent and decided the best way was through surrogacy. “Surrogacy in America is much more straightforward than it is in the U.K.,” he noted.

Harper found “the most incredible person who carried the twins for me, and she lived in Portland.”

The pregnancy proceeded smoothly until the twins decided to come 10 weeks early, Harper recounted. “I was still in London at that point and I got a phone call saying they were on their way and I should get the first flight to Portland.”

The twins — son Barnaby and daughter Martha — were born at Oregon Health & Science University, weighing four and three pounds respectively. They spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Eventually, the twins went home with Harper, but not before Portland had made an indelible mark on him.

“Every single person I met in Portland was so kind to me during such a difficult time,” he said. “The nurses and the doctors at OHSU were some of the most inspiring and brilliant people I have ever met.”

It was during this tense time in Portland that Harper came up with the idea to gender-switch the main character in “Company” from Bobby to Bobbie. Harper would walk to the hospital and listen to the song “Being Alive” from “Company,” sung by Adrian Lester. The song gave him courage during uncertain times, and he began to wonder, “What would it be like if Bobbie was a 35-year-old woman?” — not a bachelor, but a bachelorette.

The story revolves around Bobbie’s 35th birthday party, where all her friends are wondering why she isn’t married. They question why she can’t find the right man and why she hasn’t settled down to start a family.

It features some of Sondheim’s best-loved songs, including “Company,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Side by Side,” and the iconic “Being Alive.”

Directed by three-time Tony Award winner Marianne Elliott, the production stars Britney Coleman as Bobbie and Judy McLane in the iconic role of Joanne.

Reflecting on the twins’ birth and its connection to the gender switch in “Company,” Harper said, “It was very scary in the early days and I was very emotional. Listening to ‘Being Alive’ and thinking about my situation with the babies made me feel so grateful they were getting better each day. I felt lucky to have children at age 45.”

Harper further elaborated, “Society puts so much pressure on women to have children, and there’s so much stigma around the ‘body clock.’ I began to wonder what ‘Company’ might be like if Bobby was played by a woman, and it struck me that the musical could be significantly more interesting.”

He persuaded Sondheim to make the switch, and a new “Company” was born, eventually winning multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival in 2022.

“‘Company’ was a big success in London’s West End initially, then achieved great success on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards,” Harper said. “People love it, and I am so pleased that we have been able to take it on its first-ever American tour.”

Sondheim, who passed away in 2021, and Elliott collaborated to update “Company,” bringing Bobbie’s array of friends and lovers into the 21st century.

Harper reflected on the portrayal of the relationships in the updated “Company,” saying, “Paul is waiting patiently for his fiancée Jamie to overcome wedding day jitters. Sarah and Harry try jujitsu to keep their marriage alive. Joanne is on her third husband with younger man, Larry. Peter and Susan seem to have the perfect marriage until perfection proves impossible. Jenny and her square husband David can’t understand Bobbie’s perpetually single status, and they are not shy about telling her. All while Bobbie juggles three men: sexy flight attendant Andy, small-town boy Theo trying to find his way in the big city, and P.J., the native New Yorker more in love with his hometown than Bobbie.”

Harper was pleased with the gender switch to Bobbie, concluding, “The gender switch works for the writing of ‘Company.’ It serves the story very well for Bobby to be a woman. It’s not every play or musical where that would help tell the story. Done this way, it helps make ‘Company’ very relevant to today’s world.”

The twins are now 8 years old and will be with Harper in Portland.

“Looking at my twins now, you would never know that they were so tiny,” he said. “They are doing very well and, of course, they love the theater.”