Learn to be free

As Passion sweeps into the West End, Paul Taylor looks at Sondheim in amorous mode, while, below, David Patrick Stearns reviews his first non-musical, Getting Away With Murder, upon its New York opening

With the English premiere of Passion arriving next week at the Queen's Theatre, there will soon be no fewer than three Stephen Sondheim musicals running concurrently in London. The two revivals, Company and A Little Night Music, already launched to ecstatic reviews, each reinstate songs that were dropped from the original productions before their New York openings. Both of these numbers bolster, in their separate ways, the received wisdom about what we mean by "typically Sondheim"; Passion, on the face of it at least, challenges previous assumptions. Even the title might sound, to some ears, about as likely an appellation for a Sondheim musical as "Confidence" would for a movie by Woody Allen.

The National Theatre version of A Little Night Music - that nostalgic- astringent valse tragi-comique of misdirected yearnings - gives back a song called "My Husband the Pig" to the betrayed but still besotted Countess, a woman whose dolt of a dragoon spouse actually expects her to help him fight off any rivals for his mistress's bed. In the Countess's song of clear-sightedly incurable humiliation, the romantic cliche of worshipping the ground that someone walks on is acerbically wrenched askew so as to describe a situation resolutely devoid of dignity: "I worship the ground / That he kicks me around / On, the pig".

The analytic wit that can pin down a perversity - of which the singer remains the conscious, hapless and conniving victim - is a gift shared by many of Sondheim's characters. Rather than give vent to inchoate feeling when pressed, his people tend towards mordantly precise self-dissection. It's their way of staying (or seeming to stay) in control. Control is something not easily surrendered in Sondheim's world. One of the reiterated lines in a trio from Night Music sings of "Keeping control, while falling apart" and control is a prerogative which the 35-year-old professional- bachelor hero of Company is starting to feel ambivalent about wanting to preserve.

The first half of Sam Mendes's excellent production, now transferred to the Albery Theatre, closes with the previously deleted song "Marry Me a Little". The title, with its knowingly absurd qualification (equivalent to asking someone to "make me a trifle pregnant") indicates the problem. "Marry me a little / Body, heart and soul / Passionate as hell / But always in control": Adrian Lester's Robert itemises these self-protective provisos ("We'll build a cocoon / Of love and respect / You promise whatever you like / I'll never collect") with a mounting edge of desperation, as if he knows that the more he protests "I'm ready!", the more anxious and hollow his fervour sounds.

You sense that Robert would have no problem identifying with the sentiment expressed in the title-song of a very early Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle (1964): "Maybe you can show me how to let go / Lower my guard, / Learn to be free". There are those who feel that the lines that precede these - "What's hard is simple, / What's natural comes hard" - apply equally to the man who wrote them: he's clever about inhibition because he's an inhibited smart ass. The lyricist Sammy Cahn has said of Sondheim that "he's scared to say I love you", while Leonard Bernstein, a composer never afraid to sport his heart on his sleeve, once spoke of Sondheim's "fear of corniness, or being platitudinous" and of his "reluctance to make a direct subjective statement".

What, you wonder, would they all make of Passion, a musical where the expression of love dispenses (in theory) with the composer's customary strategies of indirection - the prophylaxis of pastiche (as in Follies), or a context of undercutting irony (as in Sweeney Todd, Assassins et al)? This is, indeed, to put it mildly. Based on an 1869 novel by Igino Tarchetti that became Passione d'Amore, a 1981 film by Ettore Scola, the new work, set in the Italy of 1863, focuses on a fixated, unrelenting, unqualified love. "Loving you / Is not a choice / It's who I am," sings Fosca, the ailing, pitiably plain heroine, to Giorgio, the handsome, sensitive young officer who has become the object of her undeviating devotion. From love as something to be dithered over to love as absolute destiny: the change in Sondheim's approach is surely profound?

My own view is that Passion both is and isn't a departure for him. It isn't, because Fosca can be seen as taking her place in the long line- up of obsessives who have featured in his work. Think of Seurat and his pointillist experiments in Sunday in the Park with George or of John Hinckley Jr in Assassins, with its gun-toting chorus of nine people, all of whom have used the president of the United States for target practice; it's a musical which convinces you that these people, far from being incongruous figures in this art-form, simply took the genre's values ("In the USA / You can work your way / To the head of the line") to a dark, lunatic loser's extreme.

It's significant that the only show, before Passion, that Sondheim wrote on his own initiative rather than at someone else's suggestion was Sweeney Todd. It's also significant that, in this latter, the most intense of the love songs is the rapt, hushed hymn of reunion which the hero delivers to his razors, so absorbedly that he doesn't even hear the parallel, potty outpourings of Mrs Loveit, the pie shop owner who is equally monothematic about him. The sequence disturbingly demonstrates how honourable impulses in Todd (anguished love for his daughter and frustration at the injustice she and he have suffered) become warped by obsession and feed into a self- deluded, homicidal moral crusade.

Where Passion differs is that, for the first time, the obsession of a Sondheim protagonist proves to be both amatory and redemptive. In this piece, it's as though the divergent tendencies within the composer's work have been forced into a dream-like, cataclysmic collision. Giorgio, who is having an affair in snatched afternoons with a married woman (Clara), represents the kind of cautious, self-possessed psychology which likes to keep its affective life in safe compartments. Fosca, by contrast, is possessed rather than self-possessed, her ugliness, illness and desperation having pushed her to a point beyond inhibition. An unnerving mix of the selfish and the selfless, she pursues her quarry with a dogged, demanding persistence. Her unconditional love, viewed by him at first as a repellent dependency, eventually works a spiritual transformation on Giorgio, but only just in time. This is not a work that will give false consolation to the unattractive.

The other reason why Passion is not a complete departure is that Sondheim has not abandoned indirectness. Much of the drama is conducted through letters, whose contents are sung by the recipients as often as by the senders. The obliquity this bestows on the proceedings has a dramatic power best exploited in the scene where Fosca dictates to Giorgio the letter she would like to receive from him.

It is she, therefore, who sings wishfully of the awe she is willing him to feel: "For now I'm seeing love / Like none I've ever known / A love as pure as breath / As permanent as death / Implacable as stone..." Sondheim is more renowned for intricate verbal effects than for deceptive simplicity but it's hard to see how he could have evoked Fosca's ambiguous absolutism better than in the stark interplay in those lines between the life-giving and the deathly. "As obdurate as stone" would be the conventional simile: to call it "implacable" is to endow its resisting hardness with an eerie living force.

Sondheim has often had trouble with his endings. As with the willed optimism at the close of the revised version of Follies, unveiled here in 1987, the "Being Alive" conclusion of Company is less true to the logic of what preceded it than is the laceratingly sceptical "Happily Ever After" ending that was dropped. As a lyricist, Sondheim is fond of havering, Janus-faced compounds - "sorry-grateful", "regretful-happy" - but, as a musical dramatist, he has sometimes succumbed to the pressure to stop equivocating at the finish. In Passion, however, where death and breakdown co-exist at the end with the spectral sense of a transfiguring emotional legacy, the material permits him to pull off a conclusion that is heart-stoppingly desolate- radiant.

n 'Passion' now previewing at the Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (0171-494 5040), opens Tuesday. 'Company' is at the Albery, St Martin's La, WC2 (0171-369 1730). 'A Little Night Music' is in repertoire at the RNT (0171-928 2252)

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high