PASSION is in some ways the most artistically successful of Sondheim musicals, but it is also one of the least popular because musically it doesn't burst into conventional song. I say it is a success because it is a seamless fusion of song and spoken word. In a recently aired interview on the BBC, Sondheim said he wasn't interested in opera because he was fascinated by the combination of dialogue and song the musical offers. Of all his shows, PASSION is the one where dialogue and musical number blend into one another. In part this is because the musical numbers aren't usually conventional show tunes. Only the first number, SO MUCH HAPPINESS, is conventional but this is because the love of Giorgio and his married mistress, Clara, is conventional. Their afternoon trysts are a happy respite from the rest of their lives, but don't plumb any emotional or spiritual depths. As Giorgio is drawn into Fosca's dark world, the music stops soaring. It can be jagged, as in Fosca's first utterances, or it can be quietly, lyrically tender as it is when Giorgio realized he shares Fosca's love. Musical figures are traded back and forth among characters. In the second half of the show, as Giorgio comes under Fosca's spell, he shares her music. Underscoring bridges dialogue and musical number.
I start with the music, because that is the heart of all musicals and Sondheim's score and lyrics are so strong that the dialogue usually pales by comparison. Here one feels that the dialogue is almost equal to the music. Everything fits together. The story (based on a nineteenth-century Italian novel and classic Italian film) is a strange one. A handsome young Italian soldier in the nineteenth century is sent off to a remote part of the country where he and other officers are billeted in an aristocratic home. The host's cousin, Fosca also lives there. She is physically and emotionally weak as well as homely. Fosca falls madly, obsessively in love with Giorgio. She stalks him -- even follows him when he goes off to Milan to visit his mistress. To Fosca, love isn't happy, it "cuts like a knife" and is "implacable as stone." Eventually Giorgio realizes that this is what love should be, not the undemanding affair he is having with Clara. But a mad love eventually leads to madness.
PASSION is a dark musical. There are no endings of songs, no opportunity for the audience to applaud until the end. There is no dancing and little laughter, though there is a kind of Greek chorus of officers who comment wryly on the action. In other words, this is not Broadway fare, particularly in an age in which the Broadway musical has turned into high priced childrens' theater. I never felt it worked on Broadway or in its short-lived West End production. It does work in the small Donmar Warehouse Theatre where it has been given an impeccable production. PASSION is really a chamber musical and this 240 seat theatre is perfect for it. This is the fourth Jamie Lloyd production I have seen this year and the first that has really worked. The staging is beautiful but everything is based on character. Argentinian performer Elena Roger has scored great success in London in revivals of PIAF and EVITA (which she will soon be performing on Broadway). She's a tiny woman with a unique, haunting voice. She didn't need any makeup to be Fosca. David Thaxton is the least wooden Giorgio I have seen. He is handsome and sings beautifully, but one also felt all of Giorgio's emotions from polite revulsion to obsession. The supporting cast was uniformly excellent, particularly Alan Corduner as the doctor, a pivotal role in this work. The orchestra played the lovely score beautifully.
On the way home, I couldn't help thinking that fine works like PASSION simply do not fit into the conventional economy of theater. Its home has to be a subsidized theater like the Donmar where it can be presented with the highest possible production values with no hope of a profit. I must say that the best productions I have seen of Sondheim musicals have been small-scale. The Donmar's PASSION, COMPANY and PACIFIC OVERTURES (I missed their MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG), the Menier's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the National's Cottesloe production of SWEENEY TODD and Matthew Warchus's relatively simple production of FOLLIES, and last year the tiny production of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at the Jermyn Street.
PASSION. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. September 29, 2010.