Bring up Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion on an Internet forum and you’re bound to cause a stir. An avid defender of the show who reads a wide number of forums across the Internet, I’ve seen many criticisms of the show: that it is ‘passionless’, that it is ‘far from (Sondheim’s) most engaging show emotionally or intellectually’, that the show is ‘poorly written’ with ‘dull, plodding music’ and characters that ‘do not blossom’. What nonsense! Let’s take a look at some of those criticisms – and then consider why Passion might not be as popular as other (Sondheim) musicals, even though it is as well written as it is.
Passion is an immensely passionate show, a musical of immense emotional depth and intellect. The show is structured around the asymmetrical development of Fosca and Giorgio. One can’t simply reduce the idea of character development in Passion to the simple concept of “characters blossoming” – a rather gauche attempt at dramatic criticism if it is attempting to credibly slate the show as a poorly written musical theatre disaster. The character development in the show is far more complex that that: as one character grows, the other decays and both are changed. This is obvious in even the most basic narrative reading of the material.
The music is neither dull nor plodding. The score is immensely sophisticated and composed in a manner that is almost seamless and, therefore, cannot easily be compartmentalised into extractable, easily singable songs. The music is phenomenally rich in its use of motifs to develop both narrative and character. Through an expert use of tone in the most general sense, the score emotionally expresses the thematic concerns of the piece: the nature and meaning of love, and the thin line between passion and obsession. It’s dark and brooding and brilliant.
People use the fact that the score is complex and therefore less accessible than something like Oklahoma! to dismiss Passion. However, this is an easy way out, an excuse that belies a reason, for Passion forces people to confront an idea too close to their hearts to a greater extent than any other Sondheim musical. It’s easy to to look at Into the Woods and separate oneself from the characters even if there common human motivations behind their extreme actions. The concept and structure of the show distance one from too intensely personal an engagement, even though one is able to empathise with the characters and what occurs within the scope of the narrative. In contrast, it’s disquieting how easily one can see something of oneself in Fosca, as broken in her soul as she is in her body. You can distance yourself from Sweeney Todd, but in order to engage fully with Passion, you need to be willing to confront something very real and very private. Sondheim and Lapine challenge conventional ideas about the relationship between love, passion and obsession from three perspectives: what people expect them to be, what they truly are and what they have the potential to become.
One has to be emotionally ready for that experience, otherwise casting the show aside (or dismissing it as something that is neither emotionally nor intellectually engaging) is easy. That’s the problem with Passion if there is one – but to engage with Passion in a profound manner is a harrowing, albeit brilliant and ultimately rewarding, experience. Passion is an emotionally complex show, dealing with mature themes using a stunning score that is by turns beautiful and haunting. It’s great. Full stop. Argument over.
Passion to me is rather passionless. I love how you, even though you’re in the minority, think that your opinion on Passion should be everyone’s. I’ve seen 3 productions including the Original Broadway Cast and even though the cast – especially Murphy, Mazzie and Aldredge are outstanding – it’s far from his most engaging show emotionally or intellectually.
I like Passion if mainly for Donna Murphy. I’m not sure how anyone can say what she sings at least is ‘passionless’: “I Read” – OMG.
Passion is actually one of my favorites. Giorgio is so true to young men! He is so confused with his emotion in a way that reminds me of boys at my own age!
Passion‘s a very well-written, well-constructed show. It is also, like many of Sondheim’s shows, a particular taste. I can’t say I enjoy watching it the same way I do A Little Night Music or Sweeney Todd, but I have full appreciation for it. Watching the original production makes me cringe, however. Shea was not, in my opinion, good for the role. Murphy and Mazzie outshine him effortlessly. I think that alone is enough to give it a bad name.
Maybe not you specifically, but others I’ve talked to who disliked the show just saw the 1994 one and hated it. I agree, it is not his most engaging work. It’s just not his best work, to take that a step further. Some people can get into it and relate, and others just can’t.
I have seen the show twice and tried to engage in it but I think it is a poorly written show. I think it has the potential to be an extremely moving show but does not strike the emotional vein that it should. So don’t be accusing anyone of emotional limitations here. The characters do not blossom, the main character is problematic and the dull, plodding music restricts the show from soaring.
My dislike of the musical has nothing to do with an inability to confront the “idea” of the show. I find the musical problematic in the way it executes that idea. The idea itself is, as you said, extremely personal and requires a high level of emotional honesty in order to appreciate. I think that the show executes that highly personal idea in a highly impersonal manner.
Well, for someone who is so concerned about audience contact, the score certainly distances itself from the audience. Also, sophisticated is not necessarily better. We can all agree that a score to a musical does not need to be easily compartmentalized or “singable” in order to be good, but a score that is sophisticated for the sake of being sophisticated but does not soar or grab the audience is not going to serve the play well. Being technically well structured and sophisticated isn’t enough to make it a good score.
The effort is there and I applaud them for it, but Fosca’s character is quite simply too caved in and engulfed in self-pity for us to be able to sympathize with her story. I honestly believe that it is a story that could have the potential to make a wonderful musical, but Fosca’s complete annoyingness encumbers her. It’s just that Fosca is such a weak, negative person, it stands in the way of her being able to really reach to the audience.
So leave emotions out of it then. Any objective assessment of the score of Passion that says the music doesn’t soar actually hasn’t evaluated it for what it is. Furthermore, the score of Passion is far from being sophisticated without purpose; it is inherently it is linked to the narrative or how it fully embodies the themes of the piece. There’s a difference between disliking a show, which is about opinion, and looking at a show in terms of its dramaturgy, which is something that exists objectively to some extent, which is a point on which I think we differ. If you don’t like the show because it’s not to your taste, that’s fine and that’s a completely different story. But what critical framework(s) or methods of analysis are you using to examine the show as a piece of musical theatre that support an argument that the show is badly written? If you could provide an well-supported counter-argument along those lines, I certainly would at the very least accept it as valid, even if I didn’t agree with it.
Passion is the Sondheim show that’s closest to my heart. Few pieces of theatre really grab and gut wrenchingly move me the way it does. So I have a huge bias and freely admit that the fact I get it so personally makes me think things like – if someone doesn’t like it they just find it too emotionally honest and that scares them, etc.
That said I know we all have different tastes and it’s not to everyone’s – but to call the show badly written IMHO is just not true.
As you so rightly said, this is a highly personal matter. But I have to disagree – I think the score is gorgeously rapturous. It’s like opera but with good lyrics – LOL. I also think it is immediately accessible in a way – how it just kinda washes over an audience with its, pardon me, passion. And I think it soars in so many ways (some of these small like the use of the background piano medley which is reiterated just before Giorgio sings of his love to Fosca).
What does “badly written” mean anyway? I think the only definition I can come up with is: a show that doesn’t achieve what it intends to.
There’s the wider context of dramaturgy to consider. Anyone can say they’ve achieved what they intended in the writing of a show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good piece of work.
Badly written could also be technically written poorly, in terms of score and script, which we know isn’t true for any Sondheim shows. I’m assuming in this case, Leocadia Begbick meant it in Dolbinau’s definition.