Wednesday, March 26, 2014



Norman and I both have a few days off from our respective movie sets in order to film our guest starring roles for the new season of E.R.. I play a famous stage actress, Helen Lawson, whose taxi is crushed by a runaway iron lung containing Norman's character, Jonas Socks. I suffer horrendous wig and make-up injuries and we are carried together to the ER where we are both saved by the heroic ministrations of Dr. Greene and crew. It’s a trifling little cameo of a part and I would usually not bother with something so minor but Madame Rose, my publicist, assures me that this is the best that television has to offer currently and that both Norman and I can use the exposure.

We were shooting the aftermath of the crash today and both Norman and I were lying around in pools of red Karo syrup while they checked light levels. As I had little else to do, I lay there, looking at Norman, trapped in his iron lung and wondered what it was that has caused me to dedicate my life to this man. His matinee idol looks are no more. He's much shorter than he appears on screen (most of those famous love scenes have him standing on a milk crate). He's egotistical, vain, cantankerous, appallingly bad mannered and rude at times, needy and still I love him. He's also witty, generous, artistic, passionate, and deeply spiritual. What a piece of work is man.

Still musing on the nature of love, I returned home determined to find a film which might reflect my current mood. As I looked at the collection in my 'to view' pile, I noticed Stephen Sondheim's Passion which was filmed for television broadcast in 1995, near the completion of its brief Broadway run - a neglected film of a neglected theater piece dealing with the subjects tugging at my heart for the last few hours.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Stephen Sondheim has been the undisputed American master of music-theater composition and lyric writing for more than thirty years. His shows have helped redefine the musical as a form and explore complex, and sometimes dangerous concepts in new and unique ways. Each show, in turn, has its own musical language and style, appropriate to the characters and the central ideas. Sondheim has always been about textual and musical exploration of the human psyche; he is not a composer to be interested in sentimental love stories or banal comedy.

Passion is one of his more recent works for Broadway and his third show with librettist and director James Lapine. When it opened in 1994, it opened to a Broadway looking for spectacle - falling chandeliers, storming of barricades, helicopters landing. This deceptively simple story of an unusual love triangle did not find favor. The small cast also seemed swallowed by the cavernous space of the theater. Even the Sondheim acolytes were sharply divided; was this another masterpiece or had the master lost his touch? Some found it an intensely spiritual, operatic fable; others thought it a dull and somewhat silly show. Despite numerous Tony awards including Best Musical, the show ultimately failed. Even the cast album went out of print, a rarity for Sondheim.

Passion is based on Ettore Scola's 1981 film, Passione D'Amore which in turn, is based on an obscure, semi-autobiographical mid 19th century Italian novel by Igino Tarchetti. The story concerns Giorgio (Jere Shea), a young captain in the Italian army. As the story opens, he is posted away from the city of Milan and his married mistress, Clara (Marin Mazzie). He finds himself in a remote outpost of bored officers and little amusement under the command of Colonel Ricci (Gregg Edelman). Here, Giorgio meets Fosca, the colonel's sickly cousin. Fosca suffers from unexplained and unexplainable maladies, part physical and part psychosomatic, and is as ugly as Clara is beautiful. Fosca, who has a sharper mind than most of the officers, develops a passionate love of Giorgio and enters a campaign to win him for herself, despite his obvious repulsion at her appearance and health. Her love becomes so strong and so all consuming that Giorgio has little ability to defend against it and there are no happy endings possible for any of the three legs of the romantic triangle.

On stage in a large theater, the emotions being played out, which are the reason for the piece, often got swallowed in space. In this filmed version, which was shot on film rather than on videotape, the use of close-up lets the audience experience the nuances of performance much more closely and the work is much more powerful. The use of film also gives it a slightly different look and our cinema eye is drawn in, whereas videotape tends to be distancing. The ideal space for this piece is not a big proscenium house but a small chamber theater where no one sits more than fifty feet from the stage.

Musically, Passion has a subtle and hypnotic score that makes use of leitmotifs which build and combine in an operatic manner, reminiscent of Britten or Menotti, rather than the thirty-two bar AABA of the typical show-tune. Motifs follow characters or emotions, are exchanged and entwine to build a universe of their own musical rules. The lyrics were somewhat of a disappointment to some Sondheim fans as there are not the flights of brilliant word-play he is most famous for. But this is a show of emotions, not of intellect, and primal passions are not glib, they are raw. A sample lyric...

Loving you
Is not a choice,
It's who I am.
Loving you
Is not a choice,
And not much reason
To rejoice,
But it gives me purpose,
Gives me voice
To say to the world:
This is why I live.
You are why I live.

The performances, by the original Broadway cast, are modulated for the stage, and seem somewhat artificial on film (which requires a different style of acting) but the power of music and story pulls you in and makes the stagy feeling minimal. The principals all have marvelous voices; especially brilliant is Donna Murphy (who won the Tony for her Fosca) who makes her character's pain and also resolve, crystal clear.

The show crawls with subtext. Some try to imply that Fosca is actually a male figure and that the battle over Giorgio is actually one of homosexuality versus heterosexuality but I feel this overly complicates matters. The genders of the principal players are, in many ways irrelevant. Fosca, who cannot succeed on the usual terms available to Victorian womanhood, has to adopt male tactics to get what she wants. The intensity of her feelings and her psychological problems strongly suggest the character has, at least, a borderline personality disorder. Anyone who has had dealings with individuals of this type can tell you what kind of emotional roller coaster that can lead to. Sondheim and book writer/director James Lapine also deconstruct the usual notions of love as presented in musical theater. The show opens with Giorgio and Clara making love and singing of their happiness at their love. We soon realize just how superficial their song and their love really are. The show does not make the point that conventional notions of romantic love are better or worse than the overwhelming emotional force of Fosca's love but rather lets the audience make their own decisions and interpretations.

This is a thinking adults musical, not often seen, and preserved here for new generations to discover its beauties. Highly recommended.

Bad veal. Ruined castle. Borrowed books. Epistlatory songs. Diegetic Italian Christmas Carol. Formal duel. Symbolic names. Heavy drapes. Bogus Austrian Count.

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