The TheatregoerCompany at the Shubert through April 11

COMPANY, the new musical trying out in Boston on its way to Broadway, is one of the most cyncial, depressing and all-around difficult musicals ever written. If its flaws are remedied, it may also prove to be one of the best. But, sadly enough, Company, even if perfected, is highly unlikely to become a popular success.

This show, which tells us about married life in New York, also tells us quite a bit about what has happened to musical comedy as a genre of theatre. Producer-director Harold Prince has brought the musical around full-circle-back to its origins, in fact-and this, his latest work, may be one of the last gasps of a dying American art form.

The birth of the modern Broadway musical is generally dated back to the early forties, when Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! introduced the idea of integrating songs and dances into a play. Up until that time, musicals were generally silly comedies or melodramas in which musical numbers, often irrelevant to the dramatized action, were used to bridge scenes. Richard Rodgers and his collaborators proved that these numbers could actually function as part of the play itself-enhancing characterizations, moving along the action, adding to dramatic impact and so forth. This was a revolutionary innovation, and, once Oklahoma! showed that the new form would pay off at the box-office, it became the standard for all musicals to follow.

But what was modern thirty years ago no longer works. These days it is actually embarrassing when an actor breaks into song during a scene of a drama, even if the song is well integrated into the ???? why the successful musicals of the sixties- Hello, Dolly, Funny Girl, Mume, and the like-are already sufficiently dated to qualify as camp. Yet, very few people in show business seem to realize how quickly the "modern" musical has aged, how unacceptable these shows are now to most theatregoers under fifty. Certainly Hollywood studio heads are the most blind in this respect, which explains their financing of such colossal bombs as the film versions of Dolly, Paint Your Wagon and Finian's Rainbow.

Not everyone is in the dark, however. Michael Butler's Hair is all musical numbers and no play-a hip vaudeville show having little resemblance to the post- Oklahoma! musicals; it is the most successful musical of the last half of the decade. And Harold Prince, in a string of shows climaxing with Company. has demonstrated that he, too, is not blind to the unacceptability of the conventional musical.

PRINCE first showed his awareness of the need for a new from back in 1963, when he directed his first show, She Loves Me. In terms of plot, characters and feel, this musical was no different from any of a hundred sentimental musicals that preceded it (It was based on Lubitsch's 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner) . But, very subtly and tentatively, Prince was tinkering with the conventions. The normal, large singing-dancing chorus was stripped down to about six members. The book was scant, and songs, rather than being integrated into the text, often formed whole scenes in themselves. Prince also toyed with the device (belonging to both the Greeks and Brecht) of using the chorus as a musical commentator on the action.

In 1967, with Cabaret, Prince took these innovations a step further. This musical, based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, had an emcee (Joel Grey), ? ? nothing to do with the work's plot-or other characters. Still, he had a large percentage of the musical's songs-numbers uninte grated into the action, merely commenting upon it. The device worked brilliantly and, in the process, went a long way towards undoing the modernizing Richard Rodgers and friends had done twenty-five years earlier. With 1968's Zorba, Prince continued the device-in the form of a Greek chorus-and, this time, even fewer of the musical numbers were ones growing out of the script.

Company completes this process of transforming the musical. This show has fourteen charaters and all but one of them also serve as nameless vocal commentators on the action. Very few scenes are broken up by characters bursting into song; all songs fall between scenes or, if they do interrupt the script, are sung by performers who are not in the scene which is being interrupted. The work of Rodgers and Hammerstein has been undone atlast. We are back in some sense where the musical started structurally-only the musical numbers are now not irrelevant to the show but complementary to it.

Not only has Prince brought the form of the musical up-to-date with Company, but he has done the same thing with its subject matter. George Furth's book takes us on a tour with 38-year-old bachelor Robert (Dean Jones) of his (unhappily) married friends in an attempt to find out why "love is what it's all about." It is one of the only musical books I know of that does not, for one second, pander to the audience. There are no quick solutions, no easy jokes, no sentimentality of any kind. No one knows why he is happy or unhappy. The characters' neuroses are out in the open and often painful in the detail.

UNFORTUNATELY-and this is the show's major flaw at this point-the book is short on structure. The only real event of the first act (a marriage cancelled by the bride at the last minute) seems tacked on; while it is fine in itself, there is no preparation for the scene in the hour and a quarter preceding it. And, in the second act, the ambiguous resolution (of Robert's attitude towards marriage) has no real build-up-so little, in fact, that the ending comes as something of a jolt and a cop-out. Part of this problem lies with the character of Robert, who is more of an attitude than a human being. We know too little about him; he usually reacts to rather than creates the action.

Everything else about this musical is marvelously right. What is there to say about Stephen Sondheim, the composer-lyricist, except that his songs are the most unusual ever written for the American musical stage? There are no conventional, Tin-Pan-Alley tunes here: the influences are Weill and Mahler and the melodies trail off into surprising and often jarring rhapsodies of sound.

Sondheim's lyrics are also as inventive as ever, continuing in the same cynical-witty vein that marked his great, neglected score for Anyone Can Whistle. One song, telling about "The Little Things You Do Together" that make a marriage work, lists "The neighbors you annoy together / The children you destroy together" as examples. Another song, in which husbands explain the role their wives played in shaping their lives, has such couplets as "It has nothing to do with her / all to do with her." There is also a fantastic number in which a female trio does a song (half-rock, half-twenties' boop) which honestly describes how eligible bachelors fuck up single girls' minds. And more and more.

Equally original are Prince's stylized staging, the Michael Bennett choreography (including a dance solo paying respects to sexual intercourse), and Boris Aaronson's platformed-skyscraper set, which allows Prince to create groupings in which paranoid characters can be vocally attacked from above.

Yet, as splendid as all these elements are, there is no getting around the fact that Company comes too late to get the audience that will appreciate it. Too many young theatregoers have either been priced out or bored out of attending Broadway musical theatre. Prince has finally solved the musical's aesthetic problems, but his show must play to the audience that still wants Hello, Dolly. While the theatre-party crowd might accept Prince's modernization of the form, what will they say about the show's tricky music, cynical approach to love, and lack of sentimentality? What will they say when the wonderfully bitchy Elaine Stritch attacks them directly in a "Drinking Song" that addresses itself to "the ladies who lunch"? Flaws and all, you better see Company before the economics of Broadway inevitably cut off its electricity.