In a move of uncommon counterprogramming acuity, PBS scheduled Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion” against the Prime Time Emmy Awards and then devoted a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote the dark musical as an alternative to the Emmys, must-see TV for people with hearts and brains and a taste for programming that challenges the ear as well as the heart. Yeah, in your dreams. “Passion” will have to fight for every viewer, just as it had to fight for every theatergoer in 1994, despite vanquishing “Beauty and the Beast” for the best musical Tony Award.
It’s the story of a beautiful man whose illicit affair with a beautiful young mother is turned upside down when a sickly, ugly woman falls in love with him and refuses to be deterred. “Passion” tends to divide viewers into partisans or detractors, leaving very few in the middle. Those who loved it, as I did, saw it as a parable of the ways in which love can utterly transform its object. Those who didn’t tended to see the show as a melodramatic case study in obsessiveness that made love look like the creepiest enterprise you’d ever want to get involved in. Very few, however, could overlook Donna Murphy’s mesmerizing performance as Fosca, the afflicted woman, or the gorgeous, insinuating music Sondheim wrote for the three principals (including Jere Shea as a military man and Marin Mazzie as his lover).
Moreover, Lapine’s staging was elemental, stressing a simplicity of movement and richness of tone that established a rare and direct communication between the actors and the audience. Among the other attributes of Michael Brandman’s sensitive transfer of “Passion” to TV is the way the tasteful use of closeups enhances that communication. “Passion” on television is an experience of nearly unbearable intimacy, one that is sure to enrich the experience for anyone willing to yield to the musical’s open, if undeniably strange, heart. And yet the small screen also allows a sense of distance that makes it slightly close in experience to “Passione d’Amore,” the surreal Ettore Scola film that was Sondheim and Lapine’s source. On Broadway the bedroom scenes were played with Mazzie and Shea uninhibitedly nude, and it’s somewhat amusing to watch Mazzie struggle to keep herself wrapped up in a sheet for television viewers. It seems a hilariously misplaced priority given the kind of audience likely to be attracted to “Passion.” In truth, the emotional terrain Sondheim and Lapine traverse here is a whole lot scarier and more dangerous than any outcry a flash of skin might provoke.