David Benedict on theatre

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The Independent Culture
"Living in America, they say,/ Is the price the price you have to pay/ For living in New England."

As Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson wrote, chic East Coast Americans are a breed apart. They long for a distinguished genealogy and the gentility of European taste. New York, too, is set apart, thanks to its intellectual and cultural history. Stephen Sondheim has lived in Manhattan most of his life. So where else is Broadway's most important composer/lyricist going to live? Peoria, Illinois?

Smug Europeans will fondly tell you "Americans have no sense of irony", (the additional "poor dears" is silent). Not so New Yorkers, and Sondheim in particular. For fans and foes alike, irony is his defining characteristic. Critics accuse him of hiding behind it, while worshippers revel in the way emotion is released from beneath it.

Jeremy Sams, directing the British premiere of Sondheim's latest show Passion (above right), argues that ironic distance creates focus and dramatic tension, but adds that Passion is much more direct. "It's a mature work, dealing openly with huge, operatic emotions, love and death." Asked where it stands in the canon, he sports a boyish grin, shrugs and replies, "It's a masterpiece". As Mandy Rice-Davies said of Astor, who denied impropriety at Cliveden during the Profumo affair, "Well he would, wouldn't he?" But Sams is not talking the piece up. He's convinced.

Sondheim asked him to direct it - "not an offer you turn down". His experience of directing, translating and lyric writing (his new lyrics for The Threepenny Opera were outstanding) has resulted in "more demotic" and less self-conscious dialogue - the Broadway production as a whole was a trifle po-faced. Having been an accompanist, arranger and musical director, he's well placed to make intelligent musical changes, including a new song strengthening the central character, Giorgio. "He is now much less of a character to whom things simply happen." The same could be said of Sams.

`Passion' previews at the Queens Theatre, London (0171-494 5590)