In the opening moments of Passion, the new musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, two naked lovers sing of their feelings for each other. In the throes of their passion- or what they believe to be passion- their words come tumbling out in a rush of cliches and banalities. “I thought I knew what love was” Giorgio sings to Clara. “I thought I knew how much I could feel . . . I didn’t know what love was.”
What Giorgio has actually experienced isn’t so much love as lust; love, he will learn, is something very different. “The show is about seeing these exposed people and defining that as love,” says Lapine, “and then discovering that being naked is not about taking off your clothes.”
The real nakedness in Passion is emotional rather than physical: an untethered display of obsessive love. The show is concerned with passion so consuming and out of control that it takes on a life of its own and becomes a burden and a threat to the object of desire.
Passion is based on an 1869 novel entitled Fosca, written by Igino Tarchetti. Set in Italy in the 1860’s, it tells the story of Giorgio, a handsome army captain, and Fosca a young woman in frail health who is considered ugly. When Giorgio arrives at the military base where Fosca lives with her cousin, she realizes he is different from the other soldiers. Fosca falls deeply in love with Giorgio, who can think only of Clara, a married woman with whom he is having an affair. But Fosca relentlessly pursues him, in spite of the growing revulsion, and eventually has a profound effect on his life.
The musical, directed by Lapine, stars Donna Murphy as Fosca, Jere Shea as Giorgio and Marin Mazzie as Clara. Passion marks the third collaboration for Lapine and Sondheim, who won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George and received 1988 Tony Awards for their work on Into the Woods. The impetus for the show came from Sondheim, who was taken quite literally with the 1981 movie Passione d’Amore, director Ettore Scola’s adaptation of Tarchetti’s novel.
Lapine is not as big of a fan of the movie as Sondheim, and it was only after he read Tarchetti’s book that he became excited about the material: “When we started talking about the project, I said I’d like to do it as an opera. It felt very operatic to me. As it turned out, I was wrong. We got to the workshop and we had so much music, and I realized the music was losing its power because it was ever-present. So we went back to a lot of the book and were more selective about where the music came in.
The scene nonetheless, has an operatic, seamless quality and is especially reminiscent of Sunday in the Park. “The score has a pretty full range of colors,” says Donna Murphy, “although there’s something about it that feels like one really long rhapsody.” The show has a breathless, ornate, purple tone and is filled with big emotions.
“I’ve never written anything like this- what did you call it- purple,” says Lapine. “I call it wet. It’s really over the top, and you have to play it over the top. When the actors get too naturalistic, it feels like a soap opera. Everything has to be based on some honest, real emotion, but it’s very melodramatic. This movie makes you recoil because it’s so in-your-face. When you do it onstage, everything is inflated anyway, so I don’t think it reads as melodrama so much as heightened reality.”
According to Murphy, the novel was apparently regarded as “pulp trash” when it first appeared in Italy. “The story is concerned with classic themes of that time,” she says. “A dark female character and a light female character, and the issues of beauty and power.”
Clara is the “light female character,” the desirable beautiful woman who has no problem finding a husband, which was the only realistic goal for an Italian woman of that time. “Women were so repressed during that period,” says Marin Mazzie. “Even the clothes they wore were repressive: underclothing, bloomers, corset, dress, gloves, hat. They were totally covered. Women didn’t go to school. Clara was taught how to run a household and the right things to wear in order to become a wife in society. I think her affair with Giorgio is partially an attempt to recapture her youth and play the coquette again. She’s not dull or stupid, but her choices in life are limited.”
If Clara is rather typical of the woman of her period, Fosca, by contrast is one of the most complex women ever to appear on the musical stage. She behaves in an agressive, uninhibited manner that is odd by any standard and totally at odds with her time. She is intelligent, curious, well-read and passionate, with a deep capacity to love and an equal yearning to be loved. She is also emotionally scarred and encumbered by a lack of physical beauty, an illness that may or may not be psychological and the mores of Italy 1860’s. In many ways Fosca is a twentieth-century woman trapped in nineteenth-century conventions.
“In the nineteenth century beauty was all a woman had,” says Lapine. “All that mattered was what you looked like and what your charms were. A man was defined by his virility; there’s a reason the piece is set in a military complex. You have these two extremes: love and total regimentation.
“Part of what Passion is about for me is the notion of male and female traits- that is, the male trait in the female and the female trait in the male,” Lapine continues. “Inside Giorgio is a sensitive man, a man who’s got a beautiful side to him. Fosca is ugly, and because she doesn’t have anything else, she can be more masculine. And what happens for Giorgio is that Fosca is able to pierce the exterior and touch something vulnerable in him. She teaches him that what his heart feels should not be dictated by what his eyes see. Once he discovers that he’s been loved more than anyone has ever loved him, that becomes the ultimate seduction.”
Jere Shea adds,”Giorgio is a guy who likes to control himself, to keep himself in check. And when Fosca demands that he feels something, he tells her to go away. At that moment he hates her. He’s never displayed that much passion towards anyone before, even if it’s a negative kind of passion. But for Fosca it’s positive, because it proves she was right: He does have the capacity to feel so much.”
The intensity of Fosca’s feelings and her single minded pursuit of Giorgio are not only uncomfortable for him, but for an audience. Fosca is a troubling character: You recoil as you watch her bare her soul and expose herself so openly, yet she makes you reexamine notions of love and beauty. “I think she detests the way she loves and feels, and at the same time, has a kind of pride about it because it so defines her,” says Murphy.
Anyone familiar with Murphy [Song of Singapore, Hello Again] will be hard-pressed to recognize the attractive actress beneath the fragile and homely facade of Fosca. And that’s just the way she wants it. “I discovered that my vanity connected with my ego as an actress is much bigger than my vanity about my appearance,” she says. “During rehearsals James would occasionally say, ‘You look pretty today,’ and I’d tell him to shut up. There came a point when he would only tell me how disastrous I looked on a given day, and I would thank him for his support.”
Audiences are likely to find aspects of Passion- particularly the Fosca character- disturbing. Lapine agrees that there is something disquieting about the show, but his perspective is not the conventional one. “What’s disturbing to me is the realization of how little intensity and passion we have in our own lives” he says. “When you see somebody like Fosca, who’s so uncensored, you want to step away from her. And then you realize that what she feels is so intense and so alive, while we’ve become regimented and protected and safe. It’s kind of sad that we don’t have those feelings in our lives. To me this is not a sad story. It’s quite uplifting because it’s about a person who, through the force of her own passion and love and feeling, is able to touch somebody.