THEATRE / It's only a part of love: The word is that 'Passion', the new Sondheim musical, marks a departure. Robert Cushman saw it in New York

STEPHEN SONDHEIM has frequently been criticised for not writing songs that say 'I love you' straight out. This seems to me more of a virtue than a vice, especially when you consider the recent musicals that have fallen over themselves to say it, usually in the most bloated, generalised and pseudo-poetic terms. In treating the subject urbanely, circuitously, or obliquely, Sondheim has been following an older and nobler Broadway tradition.

Anyway he has written plenty of touching romantic songs, though admittedly they have tended to do with love misprized, misplaced, or simply missed. His new show Passion, which has just opened on Broadway, is, as both its title and advance publicity suggested, the nearest he has got to a direct take on love reciprocated and attained. If taken as a definitive statement on the subject it's frightening, and more than a little suspect. Passion and love may overlap, but they are not the same thing. As a study of a special case it's convincing and compelling.

The case in question is Fosca, a 19th-century Italian woman who is sickly - dying, in fact - and ugly. She is also intelligent, shameless, infuriating, a moral and emotional blackmailer. Her prey is Giorgio, a handsome young army officer whom we first meet in bed with his equally presentable married mistress, assuring one another that nobody in the world has ever loved as they do, or words and notes to that effect. By the end this affair has proved too conventional to stand up under pressure, most of it applied by Fosca. At curtain-fall Giorgio is singing a different love-song: Sondheim at his most fastidiously stark. Fosca's obsessive-possessive devotion has, finally and painfully, awakened a corresponding devotion in him.

Passion is based on a film by the Italian director Ettore Scola, itself derived from a novel. One can see why it attracted Sondheim. Obsession is one of his themes. Think of Mama Rose in Gypsy, Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, the entire cast of Assassins - most of them, come to think of it, sexy and capable of inspiring love though not too good at returning it. Mostly, they turn their lovers off. Fosca turns hers on by turning him off; in the show's most brilliant number she dictates to Giorgio, from her sickbed, the love- letter she would like him to write and he, torn between pity and embarrassment, complies.

That sounds horribly funny. So does the idea of Giorgio, bouncing between his two flames and getting increasingly scorched. So does Giorgio embracing the love of his life, while knowing she is under effective sentence of death. But that is all in the story, not in the treatment. Apart from some perfunctory writing for Giorgio's brother officers, there is less humour here than in any other Sondheim score.

I regret that, but I think I can see the reason. I have to do some guessing here, not having seen the movie, but people who have describe it as a black farce, with Fosca an outright grotesque. The adaptor-writer James Lapine (Sondheim's collaborator on Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods) has softened and humanised it. Donna Murphy, the stunning young actress-singer who plays Fosca, is something new in Broadway divas: she makes her most powerful points quietly. Her voice encompasses dark cello notes that alternately soothe and disturb; her presence is a standing, or reclining, rebuke to the comparatively happy or healthy people around her. She is plain and severe, but she is not hideous; if she were a female Phantom of the Opera or Hunchback of Notre-Dame it would actually be easier.

We could feel sorry and dismiss her, as if she were a fairy-tale. The show allows us to resent her manipulations, but it asks us to believe in her and respect her. And, while the music is playing, we do.

Giorgio has more work but less opportunity; the show is actually his journey but in Jere Shea's performance he emerges as little more than a hard-pressed juvenile lead with a good voice. Lapine's staging, minimalist by current Broadway standards but lavish by most others, uses spare suggestive sets that only hit trouble towards the end when they have to run rather hard to keep up with the story; his dialogue, of which there is a good deal, is admirably functional. The show is a favourite to win the Tony Awards for new musical (the only real competition is the Disney stage version of Beauty and the Beast, which has some thematic similarities), so Broadway audiences, and London audiences later, should have some time to respond to its demands. These are not unprecedentedly harsh but they are unusual; girl, in a manner of speaking, gets boy, and we are challenged to feel good about it. I would hate to think that Sondheim and Lapine feel that this is all there is to say about love, but it makes a stimulating interim report.

Plymouth Theater, 236 W 45 St, New York (0101 212 239 6200): Mon-Sat 8pm, mats Wed & Sat 2pm.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
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
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

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

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

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

music
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
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test