You know it’s a really great work of art when it’s gemlike — full of angles to analyze. And Passion, a late Stephen Sondheim musical, is packed with meanings and facets. I took in the magnificent production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington VA, the first time I’ve seen this on stage. And as ever the production is miles better than just listening to the score — it’s the power and charm of live theater.
Passion is intense and difficult. Giorgio, a soldier, falls in love first with Clara and then with Fosco. Is it a story of mental illness? A display case of unhealthy relationships? An analysis of the danger and importance of beauty? A morality play about the role of women? Signature, an award-winning Sondheim powerhouse, subtly brings out all these angles with the aid of a superb cast and a tremendous production team. Look at the set, in the photo taken from my (front row!) seat. Flowers, another important theme in this work! The theater was originally in a car repair building, before they got their spiff new space in Shirlington, and so they are highly innovative with set design. The stage in the picture is long and rectangular, and the audience is seated on the two long sides, leaving the soldiers plenty of room to march up and down. (Another thing the show is about: militarism versus romanticism, the conflict embodied in Giorgio, the soldier with an intensely romantic soul.)
One of the clear themes of the work is that love equals death. You love someone and it kills you, mostly. Which brings me to yet one more theory about the work: it’s about disease, more specifically STDs. The story is set in the 19th century, before antibiotics, before even the germ theory of disease. Nobody knew why you got sick. In the original novel Fosca has epilepsy. This probably cannot be staged, so now she just falls down and wails a lot. But a case could be made for syphilis, so contagious and incurable in the period.