Going to a Stephen Sondheim musical is rather like going to the home of a brilliant, prickly friend for dinner: Will the food be tasty or just unusual? What will the company be like? Will he manage not to insult any of the guests?
In the case of "Passion" the repast is exquisite, the mood surprisingly warm and tender. If there are problems, it is with the "service," but as we all know, it's impossible to find decent help these days.
"Passion" is based on a 19th-century Italian novel about Giorgio, a captain involved in two affairs. One is with Clara, a married woman in Milan, whom he must leave when ordered to a provincial garrison. There he meets Fosca, to whom he is not at first attracted.
Fosca, dying of tuberculosis, is ugly. As the sister of Giorgio's colonel, however, she is part of his life whether or not he wants her to be. Fosca, however, thrusts herself on him. At first, he finds himself moved by her intelligence. Ultimately, he surrenders to her obsessive love.
The musical opens with Giorgio and Clara in bed, naked, singing a duet so rhapsodic you would expect it to be the first-act finale, after conventional obstacles to love have been surmounted. They describe theirs as "just another love story/Aren't they all the same?"
The answer, of course, is no and the point of the sunny, sensual opening is to provide a contrast with the other affair. The contrast is apparent in Jonathan Tunick's always illuminating orchestrations. The opening duet is accompanied by chirpy flutes. Fosca's first utterance, a song in which she declares, "I do not read to learn...I read to live" is underlined by darker, bolder colors, oboe and bassoon solos.
Interestingly, the program does not list individual songs. In effect, there aren't any. The music often does not reach a full stop. It trails off or blends into the dialogue.
The score is at once one of Sondheim's most lyrical and economical. The two above mentioned numbers, for example, share certain phrases and a tendency for the melody to noodle around a given point. Their characters, however, are utterly different, one joyful, the other brooding. Giorgio's own conflicting moods are conveyed in whichever o' the women's songs he "quotes."
Just as the musical material is limited, the lyrics are, especially for Sondheim, unusually chaste. There are no intricate rhymes, no cleverness for its own sake. The verbal style is often straightforward and declamatory.
The limitation in both words and music that Sondheim seems to have imposed on himself make the expressiveness of the score all the more extraordinary. It echoes his earlier work, with an unexpected greatness.
Musically, the cast is first-rate. Jere Shea looks a bit bland as Giorgio, but he sings beautifully. So does the enchanting Marin Mazzie as Clara.
But I cannot imagine "Passion" without Donna Murphy as Fosca. Her voice is a veritable string quartet, from the sweetness of a violin to the throbbing power of a cello - all the instruments Stradivarius. When she sings about reading or the even more gorgeous "Loving You," the passion she brings to the music is totally enthralling.
The musical, handsomely designed, with a great cast, suffers only when the music stops. The dialogue is justifiably terse, but the staging, by James Lapine, is stiff and rudimentary. It is no doubt churlish, when what is served is so rich, to complain about the service. As long as its characters sing, "Passion" fulfills its title powerfully.
Once in an extraordinary while, you sit in a theater and your body shivers with the sense and thrill of something so new, so unexpected, that it seems, for those fugitive moments, more like life than art.
That is what slowly happened to me watching the new Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, Passion, at the Plymouth Theater.
At first, I was absorbing it in more or less detached fashion - a fervid love scene with (surely a Broadway musical first) nude lovers, a neat military segue, a mildly sophisticated reference to Donizetti and love, meant perhaps to flatter so, and so on.
I enjoyed it all, and, as critics do at least subconsciously, marked it up for notice. But gradually, the music and the drama pulled me in, as I realized that Sondheim, his orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and Lapine had finally created the first serious Broadway opera.
For Passion is not your garden-variety Broadway musical - laughs and dances it lacks, and it's short on lightness, heavy on weight. But it's just plain wonderful - emotional and yes, passionate.
The story is based on the 1981 Ettore Scola film "Passione d'Amore," which was itself taken from a little-known novel, by the equally little-known I. U. Tarchetti, called "Fosca."
Set in Italy in the 1860s, a few years after Garibaldi's unification, it tells of a young officer Giorgio (Jere Shea), his romantic love for a beautiful married woman Clara (Marin Mazzie), their separation when he is posted to a remote garrison, and his subsequent relationship with his Colonel (Gregg Edelman) and the Colonel's cousin, a strangely ugly invalid, Fosca (Donna Murphy).
To the kindly Giorgio's intense embarrassment, Fosca develops an obsessive, devouring passion for him, that adheres to neither sense nor boundaries. Yet the final tragedy is scarcely the tragedy you might expect. Sondheim's music - his most expressive yet - glows and glowers, and Tunick has found the precise tonal colorations for its impressionistic moods and emotional overlays. It is all of a musical piece, and exactly the same is true of Lapine's own staging of his feverishly dramatic script.
The stage constantly provides a visual counterpart to the music. The movement, the performances and indeed the very look of the stage all pictorially portray the subtleties, shifts and turns of Sondheim's exquisite score.
Essential to this magical shamelessness are the barebones settings, moving screens and extraordinarily painter-like backcloths (recalling Turner and Monet among others) by Adrianne Lobel, the lighting of Beverly Emmons, and fashion-perfect costumes of Jane Greenwood.
The performances are close to perfection - as the confused young lovers Shea and Mazzie act and sing with just the right commitment and concern, while among the military, Edelman's matchstick-stiff Colonel and Tom Aldredge's interfering doctor prove particular joys.
But the great performance comes from Donna Murphy as the hauntingly obsessive Fosca, a creature of simple, demanding passion. Here, voice, appearance and sensibility merge to create an image as delicate yet overpowering as smoke.
From the start of his career, Sondheim has pushed the parameters of his art. Here is the breakthrough. Exultantly dramatic, this it the most thrilling piece of theater on Broadway.
For years, people have accused Stephen Sondheim of being all head and no heart. Whenever the subject of love arose, it seemed, he had difficulty hiding his skepticism. He could already see the bitter end in the rosy beginning, the inevitable disenchantment lurking under the transports of ardor. No one was cleverer at dissecting feelings. As for feeling feelings, well, presumably that just wasn't his forte.
In "Passion," however, Mr. Sondheim has dropped his defenses. With the playwright and director James Lapine, he has written an unalloyed love story, one that wants to penetrate the heart's deepest mysteries. Ironically, he has come up with his most somber musical since "Sweeney Todd." But was it supposed to be this somber? I think not.
The lovers -- Giorgio, a dashing army captain in a remote garrison in 19th-century Italy, and Fosca, the sickly and physically ill-favored woman who literally throws herself at his feet -- are unlike any who have appeared on a Broadway musical stage. While you could describe "Passion," which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater, as another Beauty and the Beast tale, there is this daring and radical difference: it's the beast (the woman), who remakes the beauty (the captain) with the unconditional force of her love.
Donna Murphy, dressed in olive drab, her face wan, her eyes feverish, is spellbinding as the wretched Fosca. Indeed, her performance is so painfully honest in its depiction of a desperate and lonely woman that there are moments when you simply have to look away. She is also more than a little scary in the role, as her need for the captain, who can barely abide her sight, grows into a voracious obsession. For much of the intermissionless evening, "Passion" dwells just this side of the macabre.
At a time when musicals are staking their reputations on extravagant scenery and head-turning special effects, you have to appreciate the composer's unremitting intelligence, his willingness to work on an intimate scale (although the heart may be the largest landscape of all), and his refusal to back off from troublesome subjects. This is his fourth collaboration with Mr. Lapine (following "Sunday in the Park With George," "Into the Woods" and the revised "Merrily We Roll Along"), and the pair have achieved an uncommonly graceful intertwining of dialogue and music.
The score contains some insinuating melodies (no titles are listed in the program) that appear to have been forged out of cries and whispers. You can hear madness in the ecstatic lilt. The sharp drum rolls that mark the soldiers' days also could be summoning distressed souls to order. Imagine "A Little Night Music" on a night the midsummer sun fails to shine and you'll have a sense of the unusual tone: romantic but with an edge.
Still, the boldness of the enterprise never quite pays off. The musical leads an audience right up to the moment of transcendence but is unable in the end to provide the lift that would elevate the material above the disturbing. In a lamentable season for original musicals, "Passion" is easily the worthiest. But its adult ambitions, more than its achievements, are what command admiration.
Admittedly, the show, which closely follows the 1981 Italian film "Passione d'Amore," is bucking some strongly entrenched myths in popular entertainment. We've long been conditioned to expect love at first sight between attractive people, and love between unattractive people on the condition that they have pleasing personalities. We're unprepared for this kind of mismatch.
"Passion" begins in Milan with the traditionally sensual depiction of love -- Giorgio (Jere Shea), naked in bed with Clara (Marin Mazzie), the luscious married woman who is his mistress -- and then proceeds to chip steadily away at that image. What captain and mistress call "so much happiness" is only skin deep, however inviting that skin may be.
Transferred to the provincial outpost where Fosca dwells, hermitlike, among a regiment of coarse soldiers, Giorgio is confronted with something he has never experienced:
Love without reason, love without mercy,
Love without pride or shame.
With being returned
-- No wisdom, no judgment
No caution, no blame.
The lyric is surely one of Mr. Sondheim's most direct and most personal. There is, you'll notice, no face-saving wordplay, none of the old corrosive irony. He wants us to believe that the love of Fosca, whole and unqualified, cracks Giorgio wide open. Wrapped up to the neck in dour gowns but exposing her profoundest emotions, she is more naked than Clara ever is on the sheets.
While Corneille would have understood the idea of a great and unyielding love forcing the object of its desires to surrender, it's not a notion the 20th century is comfortable with. Fosca, on occasion, seems to be engaging in emotional blackmail. And you can't discount Giorgio's ego either. Does he end up loving Fosca or does he love the love he's inspired in her? You will not walk away from "Passion" with a clear and exultant sense of things. The creators may want this to be an affirmative work, but the aftertaste is vaguely sour.
Yet the musical is almost always ravishing to behold. Adrianne Lobel's near-abstract sets reduce rural Italy to gorgeous planes of autumnal colors. (An endless staircase leading up to Fosca's chamber, a filmy, fluttering bedroom curtain or a long mess table are enough to specify the exact place.) Beverly Emmons's subtle lighting ranges from warm purple hazes to the silvery glints of an imminent thunderstorm. And that excellent costumer Jane Greenwood, while fully respecting the austerity of the story, has nonetheless managed to dress the performers with panache.
The production is very much dominated by Ms. Murphy, who has a lot of the Greek fury about her, albeit an ailing one. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Ms. Mazzie, glittery and golden, an alluring presence in swishing silks. As Giorgio, Mr. Shea must respond to them both, of course. From a superficial pretty boy, assured of his charms, he evolves into a sensitive man, shaken to his depths. It's a difficult transformation because he has to resist Fosca at every turn. With Mr. Lapine's guidance, Mr. Shea matures persuasively.
Gregg Edelman, as the colonel of the garrison and Fosca's cousin, and Tom Aldredge, as a grizzled doctor, serve primarily to advance the narrative, but they do so with gruff military efficiency. And in a brief flashback, Matthew Porretta stands out as the charming cad who married Fosca for her fortune, then deserted her when it ran out. All the necessary forces, in fact, have been set in motion to produce the cataclysms promised by the title. A cathartic conclusion is missing, though, and you can't help yearning for it.
In "Being Alive," the closing number from "Company," the 1970 musical that established Mr. Sondheim as the most gifted composer and lyricist of his generation, Bobby, the eternal bachelor, pleads:
Somebody need me too much,
Somebody know me too well,
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell and give me support
For being alive.
Nearly 25 years later, in "Passion," Giorgio gets Bobby's wish. But he doesn't seem to know exactly what to make of it.
"Passion" is a great, great show. Not just because Stephen Sondheim has finally approved the notion of love as more than a conjugating verb, though that is certainly the show's chief revelation. It's great because, with 15 musicals behind him, our theater's most provocative composer and lyricist is still reinventing the form while honoring it, still writing shows that tell haunting tales while delighting the ear and the eye, still prodding us to think about love even as his protagonist concludes that beauty is skin deep but love, as one character sings, "is as permanent as death."
It should surprise no one to hear a Sondheim lyric equating love and death. But in "Passion," it's no morbid sentiment. Indeed, the show opens with a woman in the throes of ecstasy, singing of "all this happiness" she is feeling. But by the end, 110 astonishing minutes later, another woman will sing those same words with the same sense of rapture but an incomparably deeper meaning, as she proclaims that "to die loved is to have lived."
It will also probably surprise no one that "Passion" is likely to hold more appeal for Sondheim devotees than for a general audience, even though it's his best score since "Sunday in the Park With George" a decade ago. It
should have a decent, if unexceptional, run at the Plymouth, though touring prospects seem minimal.
"Passion" takes its cue from the 1981 Ettore Scola film "Passione d'Amore," which was itself based on an 1869 novel, "Fosca," by Igino Tarchetti. Giorgio (Jere Shea), a young officer, is transferred from Milan to a distant'Passion' heats up Drama Desk nominations, page 5.
Outer Crix love 'She Loves Me' and 'Angels in America,' page 11.
utpost, interrupting his rapturous affair with Clara (Marin Mazzie), a beautiful married woman. When Giorgio shows kindness to his superior officer's sickly, bookish cousin, the homely Fosca (Donna Murphy) plunges into an obsessive love for him.
The more Giorgio renounces her, the more firmly Fosca resolves to convince him of the superiority of her passion -- whatever humiliation she must endure in the convincing. "Loving you is not a choice," she insists, "it's who I am." In this story, he is the beauty, she the beast, and by the end, both have been utterly transformed.
Although "Passion" is more a chamber opera than a musical (the program lists no musical numbers), the show is full of setpieces prompted by the score's epistolary format. "We'll make love with our words," Giorgio promises Clara when he learns of his transfer, and so they do, for a while. But the centerpiece is an ardent love letter Fosca tricks Giorgio into writing her. What begins in embarrassment evolves into reality, and it is testament to the accomplishment of Sondheim and librettist/director James Lapine that they achieve Giorgio's change without turning Clara into disposable goods.
"Passion" is centrally about different notions of love, many of them ambivalent. It's certainly the case that Giorgio's concept of love at the end of the show is entirely different from what it was at the outset. Fosca ennobles him; her final words -- in a letter, of course -- are, simply, "I'm someone to be loved/And that I learned from you," a sentiment that will have tremendous resonance for devotees of Sondheim, who until quite recently claimed that he had never been in love.
As he proved with "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods," Lapine brings clarity and concision to Sondheim's scores, though I could have done without the regimental chorus, whose rifle-twirling comments on the action are more majorette than major. Nevertheless, this beautiful production -- designed by Adrianne Lobel and elegantly lit by Beverly Emmons -- is every bit as painterly as "Sunday."
Perhaps to make up for the fact that she has to spend her first 10 minutes or so onstage nude, Mazzie is the biggest beneficiary of Jane Greenwood's gorgeous costume designs: Clara appears in one stunning period gown after another, each showing off a porcelain radiance (which accurately describes her singing, as well) to lovelier effect than the last. Fosca is an uncomfortable-making character, yet Murphy, a superbly gifted singer, invests her with heart-rending warmth and selflessness.
Between these two formidable females, Shea is less than great, if at least more than two-dimensional. Less persuasive is Gregg Edelman as Giorgio's superior. As a military doctor who arranges the first encounter between Giorgio and Fosca, the estimable Tom Aldredge still seems to be finding his way in a role he took over just a few days before opening.
As always, much of the sound we identify as Sondheimian can be attributed to his longtime team of musical director Paul Gemignani and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose work here glistens.
One passage in "Passion" describes a flower whose nectar is sweet at the top but poisonous below; the butterfly dwelling too long dies. Sondheim's relationship with his audience has always been a dangerous liaison, the sweetness of his wordplay and brilliant melodies sometimes resolving in a soul-chilling emptiness. The lyrics of "Passion" are not as relentlessly clever as in his other musicals, and though subsequent hearing will doubtless uncover greater friendliness in the melodies, on first hearing the music often soared without lingering.
And yet to this listener, Sondheim's newest show stands unchallenged as the most emotionally engaging new musical Broadway has had in years.