PASSION – Broadway, April 19, 1994
To be blunt, PASSION has none. That is, except for the fact that the audiences hate it with one. A passion, that is. To explain, let me empty my brain of the salient details. There’s a musical revue of AMPHIGOREY which just opened in town. If Mr. Sondheim would add the macabre sense of humor of Gorey to his and Mr. Lapine’s story they might find glory instead of bore-y. Forced, you say, nay, scream! Hey, hey, at least I’m trying! The only conclusion I can draw is that Mr. Sondheim (Steve?) is playing a big old joke on all poor folk who’ve admired him, they’ve over-tired him. Conspired whim comes to mind to describe this moping opus dubbed PASSION.
Paul and I decided to pay full price to see a preview as Paul is leaving next week. In spite of the fact that the New York Times claims that eleven new songs will be added before opening night. Right! I’d settle for one new plot. How about that one where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat? Oops. Been there, done that. Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hear it singing “mess!” Freely flows the blood of those who musicalize….
Attend the tale of Fosca. God!
Her hair is flat her clothes not mod.
She falls in love with Giorgio
Because there’s a war, he’s nowhere to go
But Fosca. God!
The demon diva of — Screech! Bleat!
Fosca plotted and Fosca planned
Like a wheezing chorine she planned
Back of her eye, caught in her throat
Fosca sang music that nobody wrote.
Fosca, Fosca, Fosca, Fosca!
Fos caaaaaaaaaaa! (BOOM BOOM BOOM)
Attend the tale of Fosca. God?!
Her skin is pale and her hair is odd
She throws her self on the floor quite well
But everyone snickers so no one can tell.
I could spend the rest of my days writing a mildly amusing description of this show to the tune of SWEENEY TODD but I won’t. I kept wanting one of the actors to turn to her and say: “Oh, Fosca! I thought your name was Tosca! Sorry, I have the wrong villa!” Fosca is kind of a not-quite-worthy-of-opera character. We are supposed to believe that she has passion for Giorgio because she mentions early on that when he arrived at the villa she watched him out the window for three days. Then she talks about how ugly she is but can’t he, kind of, you know see through the mole and the Emily Dickinson hairdo and eyes-sunk-in-the-back-of-her-head-yet-frenzied stare. If she had broken into tell-me-that-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later blues we might have a show! Let me try to describe the plot in each intricate detail, missing no nuance of PASSION.
The house lights dim. The non-music begins. This non-music tune will haunt us for two intermissionless hours. As one friend put it, if there had been an intermission there would have been no audience for the second act. Before I go on, I must say there is nothing, I repeat nothing redeeming about this show including the non-music and the unnoticeable lyrics. In the dark, the curtains open partway to reveal in very very very very dim light two naked torsos in supposed throes of passion. Her back is to us. Oh, get this. Her name is Clara but I guess they (I use the ubiquitous blame-ridden they as in “They came from outer space” or “They are out to get us” or “They just don’t make ’em like they used to”) didn’t want anyone to think that the characters were American so they Anglicized the pronunciation. Everyone runs around calling her Clahra which sometimes sounds like Claw-ra or Chlora or anything but Clara. Again I must interrupt myself to say that this show is presented with a pall of seriousness which seems ridiculously naive. I remember sitting in the audience thinking (very early on in the evening) how can Sondheim be so naive without being the least bit innocent? Almost immediately the characters started singing about being naive. They actually repeated the word naive. I thought I was starting to get the joke but I was wrong.
Anyway, Clara is, again I must be blunt, riding Giorgio on the bed. They finish and begin to sing a non-song about, yes about love. This from Sondheim who always claimed he couldn’t write a love song, he had to write a song about a woman in a red dress sitting at a bar. Well, either he was lying to us all along or he’s lost his mind or he thinks it’s all a big joke as in, I’ll show them. They claimed all along my work was passionless and now I’ll prove it and I’ll call the show PASSION and they’ll ooh and ahh thinking how intellectually stimulating I’m trying to be. But I digress. I cannot fathom what he was is or ever shall be thinking. The song is forgettable because it’s not actually a song it’s just kind of rhymed singing neither pleasant nor un. Yet, the performers look uncomfortable because they’re trying to act in some kind of natural intimate way but they are singing and her breasts are hanging out all over the place! Well, they are. Then she wrestles with her wispy robe thing so she can be covered when she gets out of bed. They’re going to be in love forever, love only each other, how lovely it is feeling this passion this way with only you and me together now soon later Desiree? He, the actor — and I use the term loosely — has a nice chest and the appropriate amount of hair on it. He even has dimples. He is a kind of third-rate Chuck Wagner when they should have tried for someone who actually had some natural — what, let me see — what word am I looking for? PASSION! His pants don’t even fit well — let’s not discuss the men’s costumes at this juncture, I will surely start to weep.
Oh, how apropos it is that I’ve been reading NOT SINCE CARRIE: 40 YEARS OF BROADWAY MUSICAL FLOPS this past week. And just tonight at the gym (what a concept — passion at a gym. Hmmmmmm. Think we can work it into some sort of, say, well, musical? Nah, it would never work.) I read a little section on Sondheim’s flops. Needless to say there’s more to say. Now back to our story.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the men’s costumes. The men all wear uniforms of unspecified nationality or period. I think they’re navy blue on top with lighter blue pants with red stripes down the sides. Stirrups too. Maybe a sash. You know that famous final scene of THE MUSIC MAN when the kids troop in in their ill-fitting band uniforms. Well, they look kind of like that without the hats. Giorgio’s pants bag in the seat like there’s no tomorrow. All of the men are soldiers who do nothing but eat dinner at a long table and change scenery. Oh, the scenery! Did I mention the scenery? Well, I actually liked it. I couldn’t figure out if the men were supposed to look dowdy. They weren’t dirty or unkempt like real soldiers. The actors were of odd shapes and sizes. Oh, I can’t dwell on this. The two extraneous women in the show (not the appropriate term — show, I mean, the two women are extraneous) play maids and at one point in a flashback (Yes, Virginia, there is a flashback) one plays Fosca’s mother and the other plays Fosca’s suitor’s mother. The scene change moments are epic (epic in that they take too long and nothing really changes except they have to carry the furniture off or on singing quirky little phrases like “Military madness!” I think maybe the poseurs — excuse me, I mean auteurs — were trying to make some comment about how maybe being in the military is a little like being in love, or mad, or in a bad musical, or in Italy, or in bad costumes, or something or not.) (Parenthetically speaking, I’m doing my best!) My fingers hurt and I haven’t even described the plot beyond the first scene! Do you see the passionate response this show has elicited from me! Perhaps that’s the point. Smells like, Stephen Sondheim! Anyway, Claaaahra’s costumes are stunning — like a display of costumes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She doesn’t interact with anyone while dressed — except once later when she’s wearing polka dots. Her dresses are on the Anna in THE KING AND I scale and she floats around in them singing her letters to and from Giorgio. Beware the ingenue who never gets to look anyone in the eye. Note: when I act this out for you someday, and I will, be kind. However, she does sit down in the polka dot dress and we get to watch the actress kind of hike up the skirt so she can sit on the bench. Obviously no one bothered to show the actress how to sit in a hoop skirt. Awkward. While we’re discussing Clahra I must make one point. She’s Anne Egerman without the intellect. I’ve been waiting to say that for a week now.
I just took a big breath.
After the initial post-coital song stylings of Clahra and Giorgio when they speak of their undying love and how fulfilled they are being with them and all, she says what shall we do tomorrow and he says, get this, oh, I have to go off to war. This is the first big audience laugh but remember, dear friend, this is done with a leaden seriousness. Deadpan. This device — and I am giving Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim the benefit of the doubt in saying that I’m sure they planned it this way — this device is used methodically throughout the show. Rather than bother with action based in, say, some character’s motivation, a given character will announce some seemingly arbitrary occurrence which will soon happen (which gives the audience the false hope that something will soon actually happen) or, worse and with increasing frequency as the show speeds by with its bizarre frantic lethargy, some seemingly arbitrary occurrence which occurred weeks or months ago and about which the characters can do nothing.
Giorgio goes off to battle after he and Clahra swear that writing of their passion daily will be just as passionate as their relationship has up to now been. (The sarcasm is mine.) Next stop the villa. Long table. Scrim with archway. Two-story stairway leading up to nowhere up right. The ill-attired soldiers are eating (I’m not clear on this as this scene recurs). Anyway, they talk about Fosca who must be up at the top of this rather frightening stairway for we hear her howls at appropriate moments during the men’s dialogue. There’s a doctor character on hand to explain all things medical and he becomes the only person who can explain what’s happening as the evening progresses (notice I said evening, not play). More about the toady little doctor who forgets his lines and looks even worse than the rest of the men later. Now, we are told that she has some mysterious terminal illness that will kill her sooner rather than later. But we are not told whether the screams come from physical pain (childbirth? paper cut? the rack?) or mental anguish (festering ennui? looking in the mirror? fear of coming down that huge staircase?) Lesson number one: the audience must sympathize with the characters. Giorgio shows up (he does this a lot — usually after one of the soldier boys says “Here comes Giorgio.” Brilliant staging.)
This review is running longer than PASSION will. So, Fosca comes to dinner and at one point clutches Giorgio’s hand tightly under the table, so tightly that he grimaces and, even though she is gaunt, sickly, weak, frail, at death’s door, he, the young buck strong manly soldier, CANNOT LOOSEN HER GRIP! At this point the stage lights darken and they are in spotlights — to highlight the exciting passion of the action, I suppose — and the audience laughs openly. Fosca is neither mad nor sick, she’s just steadfastly bothersome. The details are becoming blurry, why am I sweating? Oops, wrong show. Anyway, our doctor friend (William Duff Griffin, a William Morris client, in what surely must be the role intended for Pat Carroll) explains that soldier boy must do nothing to upset Fosca. Why? Who knows. Giorgio writes to Clahra and talks of how odd and needy Fosca is. Clahra tells him not to worry. I love you and all that tripe. Oh, this is so tedious. It just drones on and on. The same scene seems to repeat itself. During the flashback scene Greg Edelman, her cousin with conspicuous detachable facial hair, narrates what made Fosca so frail — well, maybe that’s what he explains. This was the point in the show where I almost got excited, I almost thought they all were going to actually sing something. The set consists mostly of immense sliding panels which are painted to look various textures. They seem to change color like magic and it’s interesting to watch them. Sometimes the walls are Italian sunset-esque golds. Sometimes they’re deep reds, surprise! Sometimes rich earthy greens. During the flashback they become a sort of nostalgic beige as do the costumes. Edelman and Giorgio (I refuse to remember this actor’s name) stand down right as the set shifts around to reveal different characters — it’s kind of cool. Doorways appear people appear — it’s similar in intent, I think, as the A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC set for City Center which was shown on PBS. Anywho, Fosca was younger but still ugly, however, her parents had protected her by not telling her she was ugly. Then an Austrian baron or other appears to woo her and marry her and collect her dowry. Once he receives it his ex-girlfriend appears to tell Fosca that he’s a phony and will hurt her. Then he makes her pay his gambling debts and dumps her. At the end of this scene I thought there was going to be some nifty choral singing like “Sunday” or something from INTO THE WOODS but there were only a couple of lines of singing and the flashback was over.
Later, Giorgio seeks privacy by climbing up a ramp which comes from beneath the stage and brings him to a high windy treeless place. Wuthering Heights? The backdrop is greenish and blackish and swirly and scary. I call this the scene of the three rocks because there are three black seat-like rocks down right. He comes to the rocks to read a letter from Clahra. Within moments of his sitting down we see Fosca (a contraction of fake and Tosca — I just figured that out — this is like trying to figure out the plot of The Last of Sheila) climbing up the ramp to be with him. We laugh. It’s like a joke the way she follows him. She speaks of her desperate need for him or some such crap but we don’t see her need we just see her persistence. It’s not passion that brings her to him it’s just blocking. Ah, Fosca’s hands are bloody. This looks particular good against the green of her gown and the green of the sky. Giorgio, who is terminally nice (you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice) wipes her hands with his handkerchief. They chat. He says go home, nicely of course, she refuses. At the top of the ramp she swoons her swoon — I forgot to tell you this happened much earlier in the play, the swoon she is swooning she was swooning then, but I can’t remember where or when. All I remember is we laughed the first time and we laugh harder now. Her swoon seems like a trick because we have never been given any reason to care about her. Her swoon is excellently executed but you can’t help feeling that she’d eventually rise again full size again if someone just ignored her long enough. At this point, post-swoon by the three rocks, there is a big gaping pause. What will Giorgio do? I wish there were little electronic voting machines connected to the theatre seats so the audience could decide the plot. I nearly screamed — I am not exaggerating — KICK HER DOWN THE RAMP. COME ON, GIORGIO, SHE’S RIGHT THERE, YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO! He crosses toward her, goes past her and begins down the ramp. YES, my heart is pounding, YES! But, alas, he stops, turns, and as though he smells our disappointment, ashamedly scoops her up and carries her away from the three rocks.
Later, he is wounded. Physically, I mean, though I don’t recall how. Maybe something to do with the military madness. He is being sent back to Milan for two months of recuperation. The doctor seems to have machinated this. He trudges to the train station — two facing train seat/benches roll on to center and just as you think he’s gonna get away, Fosca trudges on with her bag — for a dying woman, she sure gets around. The audience laughs even louder this time. Maybe this is supposed to be a comedy, a really, really dark comedy. He gets off the train and takes her back to the villa. Therefore, he doesn’t get to see Clahra. However, at some point he goes to see Clahra and we witness the scene of the polka dot dress during which Giorgio demands that Clahra leave her husband and run off with him. Surprise again, Clahra is married — we are told this by someone at a most inappropriate moment late in the non-action of the play. She refuses on the grounds that she will lose her children but she says she’ll think about it. He returns to the villa and receives a letter from Clahra saying goodbye. Giorgio immediately runs to Fosca’s room and tells her that he, duh, loves her but just didn’t notice it before. I think Fosca actually says thank you to him. They kiss and hop into bed. This scene, besides being implausible, made me squeamish because she seems so disgusting. Does Giorgio have only two choices of women in all of Italy? And does he have to have one today? Not to mention the fact that as he kisses her it looks as though he’s really trying hard to believe that he wants to. Eventually there is a duel after the cousin discovers the dictated letter and believes that Giorgio has been taking advantage of Fosca. I think the doctor had something to do with this discovery. Anyway the cousin is shot and so is Giorgio who throws his head back and howls the same mad howl we heard from Fosca at the beginning. Ooh, tie it all together. Sorry, boys, it ain’t that easy. Later, Giorgio is in some sort of hospital and the doctor appears. Well, he’s not actually there, he’s speaking the letter he’s written to Giorgio. He fills Giorgio in on what’s happened in the last TWO YEARS since the duel. Fosca’s dead. She never knew of the duel. Blah, blah blah. I should have told you before. I didn’t want to upset you. I vaguely recall that all of the characters — well, all of the actors in their respective costumes — appear in a sort of semi-circle and sing about love or something we’ve already heard. It just kind of fizzles away.
I had to force myself to applaud. I’m not sure if I’m curious enough to see it again. However, I am glad that I got to see it just to keep me humble. I am baffled by it and by Mr. Sondheim. I guess art really isn’t easy any way you look at it.