Ted Pappas had long admired Jim Stanek's work from afar, never realizing that the actor's roots were deep in Pittsburgh, from Seneca Valley High School to Carnegie Mellon University, before he hit Broadway in the mid-1990s.
It wasn't until after the head of Pittsburgh Public Theater sewed up Mr. Stanek's services for the lead in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," the centerpiece of the 2013-14 season, that he made the connection.
"It's long overdue," Mr. Pappas says. "We make a very good team. We care about the same things as artists and as theater people and as just people. Our definition of quality and truth is similar, and that's a really nice thing when you're in a rehearsal room."
The actor had to get a release from another commitment to come home for the holidays and play the bucket-list role of Bobby, as he's mostly referred to in the play and as Mr. Stanek refers to him. Mr. Pappas refers to the character as "Robert," but that would seem to be where their differences end.
"I had a job in Hartford [Conn.], and then the casting director phoned me and said, 'Would you like to go home for the holidays and play Bobby in Pittsburgh?' And I was like, yeah, but I have already got a job.' She was like, 'Surely, you would rather do this.' And I was like, 'Surely, I would, but ....' So I went in, and what he said about caring about the same things? I knew of Ted and about Ted, but I never worked with him. At the audition, the first time through, I felt like we were on the same page."
With the award-winning "Company," songwriter Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth ushered in the 1970s by telling a Manhattan story that swirls around commitment-phobic Bobby and his circle of married friends. The protagonist is about to turn 35, which sparks a reassessment of his carefree lifestyle.
Songs that move to the beat of a bustling city and a crowd that sips martinis for lunch include "Another Hundred People" and "Side by Side by Side," plus showstoppers "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Being Alive."
Bobby interacts with the couples at different stages of their relationships, with interaction a key distinction. In many productions, Bobby is more observer than participant.
In another example of being on the same page, Mr. Stanek says, "[Mr. Pappas] didn't see Bobby as someone who was straight man to everyone else's zaniness. I had always seen it done that way, but that makes so much sense, because everyone is always saying, 'Bobby, come on over.' ... Why would they be so excited to have this guy over if he was just a wallflower?"
Mr. Pappas turns to his star and says, "I feel like we actually worked together before. I felt like we went right to work instead of meeting. ... It may be because we love the work so much that we've come together as friends, as teammates."
They certainly share a respect for the genius of Sondheim's work and an understanding of the great collaboration that produced "Company," including director Hal Prince. Mr. Pappas saw Mr. Stanek on Broadway in the Sondheim-Prince musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and Mr. Pappas has choreographed for the legendary director.
Recent New York productions of "Company" include the scaled-down John Doyle revival in 2007, when the actors played their own instruments, and the concert-style version at the New York Philharmonic.
The Public will go full-scale, with 11 musicians to complement the cast of 14.
"It generates a full-throttle experience for the company and the audience," Mr. Pappas says. "This show has everything. It has music and lyrics, moving scenery, projections, 14 star performances, choreography, a great book ... it tests the company in ways no other show can do, and therefore it earns the right to be at the very center of the season."
The company of the Public's "Company" is a local and New York mix, with a trio of Broadway veterans -- Judy Blazer, Nancy Anderson and Benjamin Howes -- who have long been on Mr. Pappas' casting wish list.
"I've wanted to work with these people for years and I finally found a show they can all be in," he says, adding that the casting caused a buzz when it was announced in New York.
"It's been kind of, as they say, 'sorry/grateful, exhausting/exciting,' " Mr. Pappas says with laugh, quoting a lyric from "Company."
Mr. Stanek, 42, was last on a Pittsburgh stage for the CLO's "The Producers" in 2010. His decade living in New York and his nine-year relationship with his wife before they married inform his take on Bobby -- a role he has longed to play and one he thought had passed him by.
"They had done it on Broadway twice in my 10 years in the city, the first time with Boyd Gaines, who is much older than me, then Raul [Esparza] -- three times, actually, [the New York Philharmonic] with Neil Patrick Harris. So when it's being done on that level and for whatever reasons you are not involved, you think, it's never going to be produced at a place on that level or where I would want to be."
He found that place close to home, working with someone who feels the same way about the musical as he does.
Of choosing "Company" for the Public's "Masterpiece Season," Mr. Pappas says, "I admire it, I love it, I think it's just so entertaining ... but it also is us at our best, and by us, I mean American theater."