The Passion of Stephen Sondheim


For years, the standard criticism of Stephen Sondheim went something like this: “Brilliant lyricist, music tends to sound similar.  Sondheim is a cerebral composer whose work rarely causes an emotional response from the audience.”  While I readily agree that he is a brilliant lyricist, arguably the best to have worked in musical theater, I would never agree that his music is cerebral at the expense of evoking an emotional response.

How could a song like “Anyone Can Whistle” not be heard as plaintive? Lines such as the following strike me as very moving:

What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

In this last verse of the song, Sondheim cleverly alludes to the very criticism I’ve cited; but instead of a cold analysis, what emerges is a heartfelt recognition of an inability to let go.  A perfect example of just how moving this song can be was on display at the end of Sondheim: A Musical Tribute.  Near the end he was called to the stage and sat at the piano and sang the last verse of this song.  When he got to the lines Lower my guard / Learn to be … he paused before the word free. Arthur Laurents said, “I always thought that song would be Steve’s epitaph.”[i]

Or course, there are other examples from all of his shows, but that’s not what I wish to focus on in this article.  The show I wish to highlight in this article is Passion.  If Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s masterpiece, I submit that Passion represents the culmination of a life devoted to the art and craft of musical theater.

“Passion, the third musical by Sondheim and [James] Lapine, has a curious history. It derived from a nineteenth-century novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, who wrote it as a serial for a Milanese periodical. (It was then titled Fosca.) Tarchetti’s epistolary novel languished in complete obscurity until 1971, when Italo Calvino chose it for a paperback series of classic novels that he was editing, and its author suddenly joined the company of such distinguished authors as Dostoevsky, Henry James , and de Maupassant. Thus rediscovered, his novel attracted the attention of the Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola, who made it into a film titled Passione d’amore.  Sondheim saw it in 1981 and immediately wanted to adapt it as a musical.  Then Sunday in the Park intervened and the idea was dropped for the time being.”[ii]  (Another version claims Sondheim saw the film in 1983, after Sunday had been written.)

Stephen Sondheim believes that the musical is about how “the force of somebody’s feelings for you can crack you open, and how it is the life force in a deadened world.”[iii]

The story revolves around a love triangle, Giorgio an army Captain, who has been carrying on an affair with a beautiful married woman (Clara) is then transferred to a back-water army post.  There he comes into contact with a dark, moody woman who is also epileptic (Fosca).  Despite her troubling presence, Fosca exhibits a strange beauty and Giorgio cannot simply rebuff her obsessive attention.  This is extremely well played by the actress who played Fosca in Passion, Donna Murphy.  Ms. Murphy is exotically beautiful, and all that was done with makeup and by pulling back her hair gave her a plain, spinster look, but not without a quiet but smoldering beauty.


It later comes out Fosca has been taken advantage of and hurt in a short-lived and tragic marriage, which explains somewhat her motivation and behavior.  Living alone and under the supervision of her cousin, the commander of the base, she falls madly, irrationally, in love with Giorgio.

In response to the audience’s hostility encountered during the early performances, Sondheim has said:

“The story struck some audiences as ridiculous. They refused to believe that anyone, much less the handsome Giorgio, could come to love someone so manipulative and relentless, not to mention physically repellent, as Fosca. As the perennial banality would have it, they couldn’t “identify” with the main characters. The violence of their reaction, however, strikes me as an example of “The lady doth protest too much.” I think they may have identified with Giorgio and Fosca all too readily and uncomfortably. The idea of a love that’s pure, that burns with D.H. Lawrence’s gemlike flame, emanating from a source so gnarled and selfish, is hard to accept. Perhaps they were reacting to the realization that we are all Fosca, we are all Giorgio, we are all Clara.”[iv]

In every show Sondheim writes, to some extent he tries to avoid the song/set piece style of musical, learning early on from his first mentor Oscar Hammerstein II to have a song develop seamlessly out of the dialog, and continue it or advance the action in some manner.  There are exceptions, Company uses songs to comment on the action and for Follies Sondheim wrote in a more idiomatic style of the ‘30s often incorporating 32-bar song structures.  However, Passion is almost entirely done in an arioso manner, i.e. sung through with open ended songs that do not exhibit the standard song structure of 32-bar verse-chorus, something between an aria and recitative.

However, Sondheim is on record as saying he does not wish to write “opera” or use recitatives, but instead, he will have the sections of dialog sung and dramatized through the music.  This he accomplishes to great effect in Passion.

Another unique aspect of Passion is how the plot develops through letters.

These letters are sung either by the recipient, or more often, by the author but occur in the main character’s imagination.  For the production these scenes were effectively staged with the imagined character in the background singing as the main character reads the letter.  One of the more touching scenes is when Fosca requests Giorgio to write a letter for her.  At first, he assumes she means for him to transcribe a letter from her to someone else; but it quickly becomes clear she means for him to write her a letter, the kind of letter she dreams he might write.  This becomes the song “I Wish I Could Forget You,” and is one of the high-points of the score.

If the main engine of the action is Fosca’s obsessive love for Giorgio, what the show is really about is the journey Giorgio takes as he falls in love with Fosca.  This occurs over the course of the show and culminates with their lovemaking near the end of the play.  Giorgio sings of never knowing a love like the kind Fosca has shown him, a love he describes in the song “No One Has Ever Loved Me”.

No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now:
Not pretty or safe or easy
But more than I ever knew.
Love within reason –
That isn’t love.
And I’ve learned that from you…


This is a major difference between Passion and the material Sondheim and Lapine adapted.  In both the novel and film, Giorgio does not fall in love with Fosca as much as he loses his grief in her arms in the wake of ending his love affair with Clara.  In both the book and film Fosca is portrayed much less sympathetically.   It strains credulity that a handsome army captain to actually fall in love with someone like her.  However, in Passion, when Giorgio tells Fosca he loves her, it is truly affecting, the high point of the musical.  Sondheim is quoted as saying “Every time this happens I go to pieces.”[v]

There are several places where Passion is emotionally moving.  After watching the filmed version of the original Broadway production, I was surprised at just how moving it was.   I would urge anyone who is a Sondheim fan who has not seen Passion to do so – I consider it one of his best shows.

[i] Secrest, M. (2011). Stephen Sondheim: A life. New York: Vintage Books. eBook, chapter “Anyone Can Whistle”.

[ii] Ibid., chapter “And That I Learned from You.”

[iii] Kakutani, Michiko.”Theater:Sondheim’s Passionate ‘Passion'”The New York Times, March 20, 1994.

[iv] Sondheim, Stephen. Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011). Knopf (2011), 177.

[v] Secrest, M. (2011). Stephen Sondheim: A life. New York: Vintage Books. eBook, chapter “And That I Learned from You.”

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