This Steven Sondheim musical reminds Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees of the old adage: "You can't make someone love you. All you can do is stalk them and hope they give in."
Our review of Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector's Edition, published February 22nd, 2008, is also available.
"Loving you is why I live…loving you is not in my control."—Fosca (Donna Murphy)
When Steven Sondheim's musical Passion opened on Broadway in 1994, it won four Tony awards, including Best Musical. Based on the 1981 Italian film Passione d'Amore, which itself was based on a 19th-century novel, Passion was filmed for television broadcast in 1995 with the original Broadway cast. Intimate in scope yet operatic in its emotional intensity, Passion lends itself surprisingly well to the medium of television.
Facts of the Case
Handsome young soldier Giorgio (Jere Shea) and his delectable mistress, Clara (Marin Mazzie), are deeply, gloriously in love. But when Giorgio is stationed away from Milan, he and Clara are parted, and they can only express their passion through their letters. In his new post, Giorgio finds a kindred spirit in the unlikely personage of Signora Fosca (Donna Murphy), the sickly cousin of his commanding officer, Colonel Ricci (Gregg Edelman). Homely, unhappy, and lonely, Fosca falls hard for Giorgio, and she pursues him with a shameless ardor that embarrasses and inconveniences him. Nevertheless, driven by pity and the urgings of Doctor Tambourri (Tom Aldredge), Giorgio finds himself extricated in an increasingly complicated relationship with Fosca. Despite his fervent attachment to Clara, he begins to learn from Fosca things he never knew before about the nature of love.
It's no wonder that, as we learn from the disc commentary, Passion evoked a polarized audience response when it first came to the stage. How many other musicals place at their center a woman as ugly, as undignified, and as needy as Fosca—and then ask us to sympathize with her? Passion also thwarted audience expectations by creating a sustained dramatic experience with no intermission or pause for audience applause (although later productions of the musical have sometimes departed from this format), diminishing the opportunity for the audience to distance themselves from the action. Without that comfortable distance, many preview audiences evidently grew deeply uncomfortable at the heightened emotion and intensity of the drama. The story's roots in the conventions of the 19th century also seem to have alienated audiences. In their commentary, Sondheim and director James Lapine discuss how these factors contributed to the disastrous reaction the show received in preview performances.
Yet Passion is a richly rewarding show. I consider myself only a moderate fan of musicals, but this one drew me in powerfully. Both tragic and triumphant, it explores some of the most painful and beautiful experiences of being human and in love. It's also a remarkably thought-provoking work in the way it examines the nature of beauty and of love, and their relationship to each other. Passion will not only move you while you are watching it; it will make you think long after it's over. It thoughtfully and touchingly explores the mysteries of love. What makes someone fall in love, or out of it? How does loving, or being loved, change us? Is the purest form of love tenacious, sacrificial, or even unrequited? Passion teems with questions like these and hints at many more.
Part of the power of the musical comes from its concentration on one tiny corner of the human drama. The story essentially concerns three people, and this intimate focus is enhanced by the isolation in which they exist: Giorgio is cut off from not just Clara but the world at his military base, surrounded by a chorus of blunt soldiers with whom he has little in common, and this isolation works to catalyze his troubled relationship with Fosca. Fosca endures her own isolation, the product of her illness, her emotional sensitivity, and her ugliness, which renders her worthless in the eyes of most of the world. Clara, present only in her letters and in the occasional rendezvous with Giorgio, seems to have no existence outside of him—but that is an illusion fostered by love, as we come to realize. Although at first she and Giorgio seem so perfectly suited that we resent Fosca for trying to come between them, gradually we learn that Clara and Giorgio look at love in different ways. Giorgio himself must come to this realization himself and decide what it means for their future, and to a large degree Passion is the story of his journey of discovery.
The performers bringing these three characters to life are magnificent. Marin Mazzie's Clara is radiant; she truly does seem the angel that Giorgio calls her, but she shades in unexpected depths to Clara as the drama unfolds. Jere Shea perfectly brings to life the amiable, idealistic Giorgio, who initially finds himself overwhelmed by the powerful personality of Fosca but begins to achieve new insight and maturity over the course of their acquaintance. And Donna Murphy's Tony award-winning performance as Fosca is simply extraordinary. Even though one can't help but find Fosca ridiculous at first in her blatant pursuit of the hapless Giorgio, she intrigues us. In the midst of her neurotic extremes of behavior she conveys a gentleness that draws us to her, so we, like Giorgio, find ourselves warming to her as we come to know her better and learn what shaped her into the sad, strange person she is. The trio's strengths as actors are equaled or even exceeded by the excellence of their singing. Mazzie's clear tone and lightness of touch reinforce her delicate femininity. Shea's delivery has a tenderness and contemplative quality that draws us more deeply into his dilemma and the growth of his character, and the beauty and suppleness of Murphy's singing voice hint at the beauty of character that she will gradually reveal. Because of the intimate scope of the story, these three performers carry most of the burden, and they triumph. Supporting performances are excellent as well, with Aldredge's turn as Doctor Tambourri especially bracing in its dry way, but the three stars are simply unforgettable.
These remarkable performances, of course, rely on the strength of book and music to give them form, and Passion excels in these areas as well. Those familiar with Sondheim will recognize some characteristic touches here, such as his clever use of internal rhyme in moments of comic relief and the evocative way he employs reprises or echoes of songs to recreate remembered emotion while enhancing it with new meaning. Passion differs from some of his other well-known musicals, however, in its structure: Rather than being a book punctuated by discrete songs, Passion exists as more of a fluid musical continuum. Spoken dialogue is present, but it serves a supplementary function merely, which allows the audience to be swept along by the emotional current of the music. Lapine's direction fosters this fluid quality, allowing characters to move around in space and time unhampered by boundaries of strict realism.
The production as filmed for television, and as preserved on this DVD, is one of the strongest examples of a filmed stage production that I have seen. Some critics have objected to what they feel is an extreme use of closeups, but to me the closeup shots seemed neither excessive nor intrusive; on the contrary, they seem highly appropriate for such an intimate production. The ability to see at close range the emotions the actors express is, indeed, one of the great advantages offered by the move from stage to film. There are only two or three instances in the entire program when I felt that a wider shot would have been preferable. I was interested to learn from the commentary that the physical limitations of filming made such wide shots extremely difficult, if not impossible, and the loss of some exposed film further limited the available footage from which the editor could work. Thus, some theatergoers may mourn the absence of some beautiful stage compositions, like the parallel created by Fosca's entrance as it mirrors Clara's movement across the stage, but by and large the musical makes a very strong transition to the small screen. The exquisite lighting effects also deserve mention, since they contribute so much to the mood and the visual beauty of this production.
Visual quality is considerably enhanced by the decision to record with film instead of videotape, which is often used when filming stage productions. Nevertheless, the picture is extremely busy with grain during some of the darker scenes, of which there are many. The picture seems clean, however, and its limitations are evidently those of the source footage. Audio is beautifully clear and true, capturing the nuances of every vocalist's performance; the only drawback is the occasional unevenness of the volume. Sometimes the volume drops dramatically for spoken dialogue, and at other times the chorus members overpower the main voices. This discrepancy occurs in both the 5.1 and the 2.0 sound options.
The commentary, as I have hinted, is a trove of information about the development and reception of Passion. With Sondheim, Lapine, and artistic associate Ira Weitzman joined by the three main members of the cast, the mood is quite lively—and even bawdy. You'll hear some astonishing recollections about the poor audience response during the preview period and the many changes the production underwent. Volume is, alas, uneven again in this commentary, with Murphy and especially Sondheim difficult to hear. However, I suspect that this is due not to a poor audio mix but to these two sitting too far away from microphones. Even though you will have to strain to hear some of the commentary as a result, the effort is well worth while; it is a fascinating and highly entertaining journey through the evolution of a major musical, and it even clarified a late plot point I had entirely missed. The commentary added immensely to my knowledge of and appreciation for the finished product, and it's also extremely funny—a nice counterpoint to the seriousness of the musical itself.
The other primary extra is a rarity indeed: an audio recording of Jere Shea singing an alternate version of the moving "No One Has Ever Loved Me," which was cut early in the life of the show. A brief text introduction provides context for the number, and since the audio quality is pretty feeble (it sounds as if it were recorded by an audience member with a pocket tape recorder), the decision to provide the lyrics in subtitles is a very considerate one. The deletion of this song makes a small but significant change in the arc of the story, so it's interesting to receive this glimpse into an earlier incarnation of Passion.The DVD case insert features an essay by Paul Salsini, editor of The Sondheim Review, which offers additional insights into the production. Finally, there are career credits for Sondheim and Lapine.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As the preview audiences seem to have proven, Passion is something you are likely to feel strongly about—either opening your heart or rolling your eyes. If the word "musical" makes you think Grease, or if naked displays of emotion make you more restless than enraptured, you may find Passion too operatic for your tastes, both musically and emotionally. But all fans of Sondheim and of romantic drama should give Passion a try and make up their minds for themselves.
For those unfamiliar with Sondheim, a rental may be advisable before purchasing. Theatergoers who have already succumbed to the beauties of Passion, however, shouldn't hesitate to add this disc to their collection, especially those who want the chance to see the original Broadway cast. This is an experience that will linger long in both the mind and the heart.
The defendant is guilty only of loving too much—and who among us has not done that? Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Commentary by Composer Steven Sondheim, Director James Lapine, Artistic Associate Ira Weitzman, and Actors Donna Murphy, Jere Shea, and Marin Mazzie
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