“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning
Portrait of my brain: yesterday at the movies ("Gravity" — see it in 3D and at the theater, or don't waste your time!) there was an advertisement for a filmed performance of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along to be shown on the big screen in a couple of weeks around the country, which got me remembering that it was about this time of year 5-6 years ago that Terry and I went to see a performance of Sondheim's Passion at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Stephen Sondheim seems to enjoy delivering his truth in dark, even menacing vehicles. The texts of his songs layer irony upon irony, using and reusing images and lines, twisting them through the maneuvers of plot and character development, putting them on the lips of different singers, until his argument is inside out and our initial reaction to his thought is overturned. Add to this the not-quite-lyrical roller coaster that is his music, often layered among several characters or groups of characters, complex melodies and dissonances that vex aficionados of the Webber-Disney branch of the genre, and you have a formula for commercial disaster. Fortunately, the very name “Sondheim” on a show means that a large number of theatergoers will give it the benefit of the doubt, and occasionally, as with the preview we saw of the ill-fated Road Show, nèe Wise Guys, nèe Gold!, nèe Bounce, which disappeared in New York after playing a few tune-up runs in theaters in Chicago and Washington, DC, even the great one himself misses the mark by a few meters.
I think of the way Sondheim has always played around on the dark edges of relationships over time in shows like Follies, Company, and my personal favorite, A Little Night Music. He dealt with obsession and revenge in Sweeney Todd, fame and delusion in Assassins, and the compromises and obsessions, vision and blindness of the artist in Sunday in the Park with George. He explored the dark corners of myth and desire in the certifiably un-Disneylike fairy tale that was Into the Woods, coming soon to the big screen. Some of us, post-Sweeney Todd movie, are dubious.
Passion is his 1994 work based on an Italian (of course) movie called Passione d’amore. I have loved the score since I first heard it—much of what is his vision in this show can be distilled just from the score, but not all. We also saw it a few years ago in the middle of the Sondheim 75th birthday celebration that went on for five years at Ravinia, a stirring version that featured Audra McDonald in the role of Clara, Patti Lupone as Fosca, and Michael Cerveris as Giorgio. What was missing, I think, was the drama that depends upon the judgments that a viewer is making while seeing the action unfold before our eyes. We are being judged, no, judging ourselves, on what the meaning of beauty is to us, what love means, and how those things are related in our understanding. It is in this area that the performance we saw at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, in the sixth floor “little theater,” excelled and exposed both the genius and failure of the creators. Not a failure of vision, I would say, but a failure in the sense described by Browning - that the vision exceeded the grasp, and plunged as we might have been into the mystery of love and beauty (and therefore of the infinite and what is common to all people, and even of God), the condensing of time and emotion was ultimately unable to convince. That having been said, the glimpse this show provides into the depths of eros and philia and the school that they provide into the world of agape love is breathtaking. I certainly came away from the show with the sense that we have wrestled with angels, even if the angels, as usual, won.
Just to briefly synopsize the “plot,” if you’re not familiar with it: Giorgio is a handsome, brave, and thoughtful young soldier who is in love with the beautiful Clara. The two have a clandestine love affair that seems to have both a past and a future, though Clara is married and has a young son. When Giorgio is suddenly posted some distance away, the two are separated for long periods of time, but communicate via almost daily letters, which make up a good deal of the show’s musical subtext, as the letters exchanged by the main characters are often written/read/sung over actions involving other characters, exposing conflicts and deepening meaning. In his new post, Giorgio meets the sickly and very plain cousin of his commanding officer, a woman named Fosca. She is drawn to him and, while he finds her neediness off-putting, his sense of duty leads him to try to be whatever comfort he can be to her as a companion. Fosca, however, soon confesses her passion for Giorgio, and he feels the needs to separate himself from her by spending more time on maneuvers with his men. As the story develops, her health starts to fail because of his inattention, and the doctor unwisely arranges for him to come to her, because he feels his presence and a few kind words will be restorative. His presence has the desired effect, but also restores her insatiable need. Somehow her persistence starts to work on him; ultimately he gives Clara up, drawn to flame of Fosca’s completely unconditional love. There are tragic consequences for nearly everyone. Fosca dies, Giorgio must duel with her cousin, whom he grievously but not mortally wounds, and Giorgio himself is driven to the brink of madness by his choices.
As an idea, the play between Clara’s sensual beauty (in the opening scene, Clara and Giorgio are nude and making love as the lights come up, and it’s hard to shake that image as you negotiate their correspondence) and Fosca’s homely, drawn infirmity as subjects of love and rivals for Giorgio’s affection works really well. Even in the realm of music, where one can forge one’s own reality within the realm of imagination, one can soften Fosca’s sharp angularity and pass quicker judgment on Clara’s duplicity. But in the theater, especially in such a small theater, there is no hiding from the awful truth of what we see, and it is not Clara’s duplicity or Fosca’s neediness that is so exposed, but our own. We really can’t find a reason to sympathize much with Fosca outside of her ideas and her love as so monumentally expressed by Sondheim’s seductive poetry. This is where I think the musical as art might crack apart - or maybe it was I that was cracking apart. I believed in Fosca, but I could not want her. She still seemed like, well, a stalker, though one who thought all the right things and sang them in a way that made me weep. While Giorgio’s transformation isn’t convincing, what he sings shows us he is convinced:
No one has ever loved meWhen all is said and done, I’m sitting here wondering: when did what appeared to be obsession become love? What made Giorgio change his mind? Was he sick, or damaged, or drawn in by the mysterious depth’s of Fosca’s passion? Was it the passage of time? Was being away from Clara for long periods of time, and closer to Fosca, the thing that changed him? Was Fosca’s confession of her willingness to die for him, to put his good completely ahead of hers, the news that turned the tide for him? I confess that the answer to all that wasn’t clear to me, though I further confess that from that first scene on it was hard not to be rooting for Clara, whose passion was also clear, though her limits of her ability to love was clearly delineated along lines of what seemed possible to her within the world of her son and husband.
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...
Confounding as it is, and artfully, wonderfully, as much as it makes us ask these questions about ourselves and our situation in life, this was a great way to spend a couple of hours in the theater. As a church musician, it was good to hear a “secular” artist (if there is such a thing) struggling with what the meaning of love and beauty is with such insight and discipline. Also, as a church musician, I was moved that the show ended in such a diminuendo, as though confronted by and reverencing the very mystery it was unable to contain, as the cast sings a gentle ostinato or canon on the words, “Your love will live in me,” over and over, the way we try to do in church when we’re trying to get inside of a biblical or liturgical text.
Ultimately both satisfying and confounding, Passion is the work of a musical and theatrical master in his twilight years but still at the height of his dramatic power, wrestling with the same questions with which he dealt 40 years ago, but now with the wisdom of his lifetime folded into the mix. Reaching into the abyss of love and life, this great dramaturge distills resonant truth and sings it out to us through the voices of madmen, cannibals, witches, and sometimes even clumsy lovers like ourselves, letting us wrestle with his angels and demons right along with him. Like love, it’s probably not ultimately the destination by which the artist’s journey is judged, but by the route and our attention to it and reflection on its meaning as we go. It’s the reach, not the grasp, that makes Sondheim’s theater heaven.