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.