Today is the day in 1994 that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion began its 280-performance run, still the shortest run of the shows that have won the Tony Award for Best Musical. 26 years after its premiere, it remains the most hotly debated and divisive show among Sondheads, the most devoted of its composer’s fans. Some people cannot handle its intensity; others find its ferocity its greatest pleasure. There are those who find it simply melodramatic; they are countered by people who celebrate it as a searingly honest reflection of the human condition.
And that’s before the topic of what Passion explores is even raised. Is it about love? Does it substitute obsession for love? Does its title refer to romance? Extreme desire? Suffering? Sondheim himself has said that the show is about ‘how the force of somebody’s feeling for you can crack you open and how it is the life force in a deadened world.’ Thus, in actuality, it is about all of these things. When one recognises this, to paraphrase Fosca, in the end, you finally see what is beautiful about it.
In that spirit, let’s take a moment to celebrate this lush musical. Here are my five favourite musical scenes from the show – with an honourable mention to “I Wish I Could Forget You.”
Radiance. If I had to sum up this song in one word, that would be it. Were it just the opening number of Passion, this is all it might be – and it would be enough. But “Happiness” is so much more than a scene-setter, so much more than exposition. “Happiness” gains more power in its appearances as a motif in the show, with musical fragments reappearing at key moments and words in both dialogue and song compelling us to interrogate its sentiments. Sung at first by Giorgio and Clara, its eventual utterance by Fosca near the show’s end is heart-rending.
4. “Garden Sequence“
Passion is full of expertly crafted musical scenes, tiny vignettes that shift from dialogue to song and back again. The “Garden Sequence,” which uses the letters between Giorgio and Clara to enable the scene to comment on itself, is one of my favourites. We see Giorgio toying with words he has shared with Clara as he talks to Fosca, and she sees through him. The love that Giorgio will eventually feel for Fosca is foreshadowed here, with Clara narrating the process as it slowly begins to manifest. The allegory of Passion reveals to us how we are all caught like Giorgio between what the world tells us is light (Clara) or dark (Fosca), an idea perhaps best illustrated in this section of the show. Of course, we’re only protecting our own lightness and darkness onto those we love, so what we discover in the end may be surprising.
3. “Loving You“
What is so incredible about this complex score with its motifs that are so expertly arranged and inverted and manipulated and juxtaposed is how it distils itself into moments of such pure simplicity. It is like a light that shimmers through crystals, dancing about onto some surface and then, when the conditions are just right, projects a rainbow into our lives. “Loving You” is one of those rainbow moments. The show’s detractors are quick to argue that what Fosca articulates is not love, but how many of us haven’t defined ourselves in this way, by a love that isn’t returned, and still called it love? There is a reason that Barbra Streisand was able to massage this song into a relatively conventional romantic pop duet with Patrick Wilson: what it says connects with our universal experience of love, including the lies we tell ourselves about it. Fosca at least has the awareness to realise that what she feels and acts upon is out of her control. How many of us are ready to admit that?
2. “I Read“
“I Read” is as brilliant an introduction to a character as there ever was. It captures Sondheim at his most poetic in a lyric that is as layered and evasive in some moments as it is forthright and literal. Though this song, he makes Fosca, like Rousseau’s Julie who she has just mentioned, a great mystery. Fosca, who is as broken in her soul as she is in her body, somehow becomes someone in whom we see our own selves and our own desires to free ourselves from whatever breaks us. It’s disquieting, masterful theatre-making.
1. “No One Has Ever Loved Me“
Those who wonder what Passion is about might do well to listen to the penultimate song in the show, one of Sondheim’s most beautiful creations as it puts into words what so many of us seek in our lives: ‘Love without reason, love without mercy, love without pride or shame.’ That’s what passion is, not something ‘pretty or safe or easy’. This moment of catharsis is just one of the things makes Passion worth the journey.
Want to share why Passion is special to you? Feel free to head on down to the comments box to share your favourite moments with me.