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.
Whichever way you look at it, saying or implying that Passion (as Leocadia Begbick does) is badly written is, like Eric says, just not a true appraisal of the show’s merits.
That’s true. I obviously haven’t delved too deeply into Passion but from what I’d understand, it’s not poorly written under either definition.
Sorry, but I would say Passion is my least favorite show of Sondheim. I don’t think it’s bad by any means whatsoever. It just doesn’t capture my interests and engage me as much as the rest of his shows do. I do acknowledge that it’s a good show, it just doesn’t do it for me as much as his other shows do.
As my science teacher said a few days ago; “If you don’t have knowledge then you have nothing to say whatsoever when it comes to analyzing and stating if something is good or bad.” I really like this quote, because there is a great difference between good and entertaining. If something is good isn’t subjective, it’s objective. Whether it’s entertaining or not is a matter of subjective opinion. Passion is not a badly written show, if somebody is to claim that, then they don’t have the fundamental knowledge needed to analyze a musical.
Personally, I am quite partial to Passion and I think it’s quite well written to boot. I think many of David’s points about the structure and thematic depth of Passion are valid.
Theatre is not a science. There is no formula for a good musical, a show cannot be analyzed like a science experiment and quality cannot be measured with a chemistry set. Your statement is completely untrue. There is no “fact” when it comes to judging the quality of a show. If that was the case, then it could be recorded into a textbook what is well-written and what isn’t, and dictated to theatre students. The truth is that even the people who know the most about theatre disagree all the time on whether a show is “good” or not. What one person may consider a great musical, another person doesn’t.
Most people agree that South Pacific and West Side Story are great musicals, right? Well Stephen Sondheim doesn’t think so. Does that make him “wrong”? Hell no. It’s just his opinion, and frankly I’d be inclined to say that it’s much more valid than anyone else’s. Would you personally insult him to his face? I sure hope not. West Side Story is generally regarded as one of the great musicals of the 20th century. Sondheim thinks that it is overrated and nothing more than pretty music with cardboard characters and lyrics that don’t fit the situations of the characters at all. And yet, Sondheim thinks The Wiz, as a musical, “works”, which a lot of people on here consider to be a really stupid show. So, who’s right? Stephen Sondheim or everyone else? It just goes to show that there is no “fact” on what is good and what isn’t.
It isn’t a science, but all art is based in technique. Even when art departs from technique, it is a reaction against a series of conventions and/or a particular world view. These conventions help in the development of critical frameworks. This is how Artistotle developed The Poetics alongside the traditions of classical Greek Theatre. One can’t pretend that critical analysis all comes down to opinion, because – quite simply – it doesn’t, and that is the difference between liking or not liking a play and being able to comment critically on the way a play is written.
There are indeed basic dramaturgic conventions for quality, but only to a certain degree. What “works” and what doesn’t work in a musical is extremely subjective. The truth is simply that different people have different standards for great musicals. Look at Clive Barnes, Frank Rich, Ben Brantley – all have very different ideas on what makes a great show. Ben Brantley thought Assassins was a good show, Frank Rich thought that the structure of the show didn’t work and overall it wasn’t emotionally impactful enough. Neither of them are stupid or uninformed. And would you contradict Sondheim to his face if he said (which he has said before) that he didn’t think West Side Story or South Pacific was a good musical? To objectively prove whether a musical is good or not, frankly, is impossible. What you and I may consider to be the perfect musical (i.e. South Pacific), Sondheim thinks doesn’t work. So who’s right?
It seems you who argue for the “it’s only an opinion” thing are very concerned about being right or wrong. I think that is missing the point. If I don’t like West Side Story or South Pacific, being shown their technical strengths does not necessarily change my reaction to them, but maybe I can see them in a different perspective.
You are taking my comments and viewing them completely out of context. David is the one who is saying that quality can be measured objectively, and that there is a “right” and “wrong” when it comes to what is good and what isn’t – and I the one saying that judging theatre is extremely subjective. My last few posts have been very theoretical, from the “devil’s advocate” viewpoint so to speak – challenging what David has to say.
Go read the post over again. You completely missed the point. What I was saying was that even “technical strengths” are very subjective – because it is largely based on what “works” and what doesn’t, which is very much a matter of opinion. Personally, I think that South Pacific is pretty much perfect but Sondheim doesn’t, because he thinks that certain elements don’t work – do you get my gist? It’s not possible to objectively measure the quality of a show.