Passion

Stephen Sondheim established himself on Broadway as a lyricist for Gypsy and West Side Story, but he always considered himself a full-service composer, and he made certain that his Tony-winning early-'70s breakthroughs Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music were strikingly tuneful. Having proved his melodic prowess, Sondheim re-imagined the use of melody in musical theater for shows like Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George, and Into The Woods, for which "songs" take a back seat to miniature themes that weave between the dialogue and explode into choruses. By the time Sondheim and author/director James Lapine's 1994 musical Passion hit Broadway, critics and audiences alike had begun complaining that Sondheim was giving them nothing to hum on the way out of the theater. Passion's complex score and overtly operatic story–about 19th-century Spanish soldier Jere Shea, who nurtures a love affair with comely Marin Mazzie while fighting off the romantic advances of unattractive invalid Donna Murphy–doomed its prospects at the box office, and it was nearly 10 years before Sondheim mounted a new musical. (His latest, Bounce, opens in Chicago this summer.) On the new DVD edition of Passion, taken from a film made of the show shortly after it closed, Sondheim, Lapine, and the cast's key members reflect on the reasons for the production's failure. They settle on the theory that the material hit too many raw nerves. Passion is Sondheim and Lapine's most relentless piece, with Murphy's literally lovesick character serving as both heroine and villainess in her irrational pursuit of the exasperated Shea. Every time she pops up in his life, refusing to take the hint, the tone of heightened, romantic delirium threatens to tip into absurdity, and it's no wonder that some theatergoers giggle. But viewers willing to accept Passion's outsized emotions on their own terms have found the musical powerfully sensual. Sondheim and Lapine emphasize Shea's almost physical discomfort in trying to find a way to let Murphy down gently, a politeness that she exploits like a salesman, asking questions that can only be answered "yes" in order to get him into an agreeing mood. Lapine's direction could use more wide shots to show off the scope of the scenery and movement, but the excessive close-ups work to overcome one of Sondheim's typically clumsy second acts. Lapine zeroes in on a trio of great faces, all believing every note they're singing, and making melodic abstraction into pure, sincere musicality.

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