Sondheim’s Passion Returns, Passionately

Damn that Stephen Sondheim, always timely.

Last year, when Yale Rep plucked the composer’s Assassins from mothballs, audiences couldn’t help but feel a contemporary edge to the 1990 musical, considering the political hostility of the moment and that show features figures remembered in infamy. Indeed, during a talk by Sondheim at the theater shortly before opening, an audience member remarked that the timing of the musical’s re-staging seemed eerie.  It was a touchy moment, but Sondheim handled it well, taking a deep breath, before defusing the topic. 

Those who saw the show, however, noted that almost every assassin had complaints that sound familiar today based on immigration, states’ rights, mistreated workers, etc.

They also learned that aside from being the most prominent member of his cohort, John Wilkes Booth was apparently a worthy baritone. (And why not? His brother Edwin was the most accomplished actor of the day.) So what if audience members had to check their programs for the names of Garfield’s and McKinley’s assassins? (Charles J. Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, bass and tenor, respectively.) And no doubt they were startled that the finale included the act of shooting, literally, at people in their seats. (From the evidence, all the guns were loaded with blanks.)

Just this week, Sondheim is at again with an outburst of timeliness: the Yale Drama School production of Passion, which lasted 280 performances on Broadway from 1994 to1995 and is considered the composer’s most personal work. In the age of “Me Too” it seems particularly appropriate now.

It’s not about sexual harassment or inappropriate touching. There is no Harvey Weinstein figure. But it does delve deeply into why human sexuality is not suited to broad political or even criminal assessment.

The complexity of love, its aspirations and regret, the neediness that comes to the fore, the easy opportunities for lovers to mislead or betray each other, the false accusations and jealousies, the intrusiveness and judgments of those who should stay out of the business others, the consequences to careers, not to mention profound mental instability -–  all this is grist for an artful and deeply felt tale set mostly in a remote military camp in Italy in 1863.

If you read this in time, call up and beg for a ticket. (The show runs only until week’s end.) Not because it’s the finest production you’ll ever see. It’s unevenly acted and sung by the cast, though there is nothing uneven about the exceptional performance by Stephanie Machado, as Fosca, one of the two central lovers. Fosca is a version of Lucia de Lammarmoor and Blanche Dubois, all in one. You won’t forget her. And you’ll admire the crisp and imaginative direction of Rory Pelsue.

See this because the genius of Sondheim (and in this case the script writer James Lapine) while it costs, in the Age of Hamilton, but $25 per ticket. (Even less if you are part of Yale Officialdom.)  Sondheim’s haunting lyrics, if not his melodies, seem to diminish all the slap-dash, showbiz, shallow decorations on display in the general run of Broadway musicals. This gets to the complex heart of things.

Two things to warn you about. One is that there is some nudity (should you be of the ilk who requires a warning about such matters). And there seems to be a continuation of a long tradition of excessive audience giggling at inappropriate places in the action. I’m told this has been a problem, mostly the product of other drama students, who don’t seem to be able to accommodate highly emotional scenes without losing a sense of propriety. But that’s a topic for another day.

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