Passion, the musical by Stephen Sondheim with book by James Lapine, has the distinction of having had the shortest Broadway run of any Tony-winning musical. It’s been seen as Sondheim’s most personal piece, and, in the view of third-year director Rory Pelsue, who is directing a production as his thesis show at Yale School of Drama, the work is “utterly unique.” It evokes the Gothic and the Romantic, both with capital letters, and “can make you feel alive in a cynical, dissolute time.”
The production plays at the University Theater on York Street from Feb. 3rd through Feb. 9.
The story of Passion — derived from the novel Fosca by way of Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore — portrays a “relentless romantic pursuit” to arrive at a vision of love that is both “terrifying and life-affirming,” Pelsue said. In Risorgimento Italy, a dashing soldier, Giorgio, is in love with a woman named Clara, but is then sent to a remote outpost, a place almost wholly lacking in female company. There Giorgio encounters Fosca, a sickly and, Pelsue stressed, ugly cousin of Giorgio’s colonel. The woman is desperate for a little kindness and tenderness. Giorgio experiences the uncanny force of her attachment to him while also continuing his passion — from afar — by means of letters to and from Clara.
For Pelsue, the situation is a love triangle that recalls the Gothic drama in such popular musicals as The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast. But here, in Sondheim’s “only foray into this genre,” the gender dynamic is “flipped”: instead of a disfigured beast of a man who aims for a lovely young woman’s love, we have a disfigured woman who pursues a desirable man.
Sondheim, Pelsue insisted, “does it better than his contemporaries.” Praised for its lush music, the musical plays “like a rhapsody” with “few conventional songs.” The “fast and furious” switches between speech and singing Pelsue likened to Shakespeare, where poetic flights and prosaic statements combine. Pelsue should know. He directed a memorable Othello for his Shakespeare project at the School of Drama and adapted Antony and Cleopatra for an all-male cast at the Yale Summer Cabaret. Last fall, he also directed a charming one-act musical, The Apple Tree, at Yale Cabaret. This thesis show, he said, gives directors “an opportunity and resources to work on something they love.”
For Pelsue, a “toxic romance” like that between Fosca and Giorgio tests the limits of a love story, creating what he sees as “the paradox of the piece: in this play love is a force that kills but that also gives meaning.” He pointed out the “fairytale-like assumptions” about the characters’ situation — it is to some extent a romance between a witch and a prince — but also the contemporary sense of how writing letters, as Clara and Giorgio do, is comparable to texting as a means to maintain intense involvement at a distance.
Passion was the show Sondheim worked on after his successful and “darkly comic” musical Assassins, which was given a very capable revival at the Yale Repertory Theater last season. Pelsue remarked that Sondheim went from “a sardonic,” political show to his “most sincere” and personal show — a journey that audiences who saw Assassins can now make as well.
Actors Ben Anderson, who plays Giorgio, and Stephanie Machado, who plays Fosca, appeared together in An Enemy of the People at Yale Rep last year, and Courtney Jamison, who plays Clara, appeared in the ensemble of the Rep production of Assassins and sang lead on “Something Just Broke.” Machado and Jamison both, they told me, wanted the part of Fosca, for which Donna Murphy won a Tony. Jamison said she initially saw Clara as an ingenue but after conferring with Pelsue, saw more potential in the role. Clara, Jamison said, is a strong character whose love, while possibly misguided, also has tragic dimension.
While calling her role “heartbreaking,” Machado expressed some doubts about Fosca as the work’s heroine. She is “deeply depressed” and it’s “hard to understand her mind.” She stressed Fosca’s isolation, from living in a garrison town and due to her infirmity. Fosca is first drawn to Giorgio through a shared interest in books. The revelation of Giorgio’s love for Fosca — the climax of the show — was acted in a rehearsal I saw, a scene full of a sad vitality that manifests the Romantic interest in emotional and physical extremes, like making love on your deathbed.
Machado and Jamison both greatly admire Sondheim’s score, which employs musical motifs associated with one character moving to another in key moments. They found they “trust the music and lyrics” to drive the feeling of the play and have been studying the musical score “because of the clues” about how characters should develop contained in the composition. Both have long been drawn to musical theater and worked together in the ensemble of the most recent musical thesis show at the School: last season’s Bulgaria! Revolt!
Thanks to Pelsue’s driving passion for Sondheim’s Passion, the actors have the opportunity to cap their work at the Drama School with two stirring roles of women driven by love of the same man. Passion, Pelsue stressed, is another word for suffering.
Passion plays at University Theater, 222 York St., from Feb. 3 to Feb. 9. Click here for tickets and more information.