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Stephen Sondheim's

Stephen Sondheim's Passion
Image Entertainment/ Buena Vista Television
1996 / color / 1:33 flat full frame / 114 min. / Street Date June 19, 2003 / 24.99
Starring Donna Murphy, Jere Shea, Marin Mazzie, Gregg Edelman, Tom Aldredge
Cinematography John Bailey
Set Direction Adrianne Lobel
Film Editors Girish Bhargava, Paul Srp, Bill Stephan
Original Music Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Produced by Michael Brandman, Kimberly Myers

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Loving you / is not a choice / it's who I am.

Yet another intense musical in Stephen Sondheim's unique style, Passion is fascinating. His previous works had no shortage of commentary on love, but this concentrated effort starts with a heated affair already underway and proceeds directly into new emotional and philosophical territory. It's a filmed stage play, an invaluable record done in the same 'respect the proscenium arch' method of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, and we can only wish all Broadway successes were similarly preserved.


Italian officer Giorgio (Jere Shea) is engaged in an exciting affair with a married lover, Clara (Marin Mazzie), when he's transferred to a provincial outpost. There, his commanding officer Colonel Ricci (Gregg Edelman) and the company doctor Tambourri (Tom Aldredge of Into the Woods) encourage his friendship with Ricci's ailing cousin Fosca (Donna Murphy), as she's desperately in need of friendly companionship. At first pleased to be of help, Giorgio is pained by Fosca's unwanted advances and her attempts to turn their relationship into a romance. In frustration, he turns his back on her, but through his dealings with both women in his life, learns some deep lessons about love and commitment.

Stephen Sondheim must have been impressed by the 1981 Italian film Passione d'amore, by Ruggero Maccari and Ettore Scola, as his stage version percolated for over ten years. The film was based on the novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. It is a story with classic lines, but a transcendant theme. The fact that it takes place during the Italian Risorgimento is almost irrelevant.

As musical-theater innovators, Sondheim and James Lapine have found the perfect construction for their material. Much of the film is sung in Sondheim's operetta style, yet the lyrics are as essential as the dialogue, and keep one's attention throughout. The production is basic, making clever use of screens and minimal sets. It's not the technical challenge of Sunday in the Park with George, but an economical, direct telling without unnecessary embellishment. The only group scenes use a table of talkative officers who double as a chorus, marching to a drumbeat that's the only marker for the supposedly military setting.

The main performers are stunning. Jere Shea's character is on a journey to enlightenment, and he doesn't convey what he learns by simply behaving insensitively early on. Marin Mazzie gives her role great conviction, also not telegraphing developments through her performance. Tom Aldredge does an excellent job with the morally fuzzy role of the doctor, who artificially begins a relationship and then tries to stop it.

But Donna Murphy is the magnetic attraction, playing the really tough part of a woman who is supposed to be unattractive, whose desperation for love and affection are initially repellent. Instead something new comes out of the turmoil, and Murphy, the music and the lyrics all combine to define it as a Love of great purity, offered with a complete lack of shame or other considerations. For the uncommonly sensitive Giorgio, Clara's 'limited love' and careful management of clandestine meetings can't compete for long. Purposely presented as plain and almost always with a wounded, pained look on her face, Murphy's Fosca begins as a momentary problem to be avoided. By the end she's as classic a lover as The Lady of the Camelias.

None of the writing, stagework and acting in Passion looks at all easy - it has a purity of purpose and function far beyond what passes for musical theater these days - Andrew Lloyd Webber glop, adaptations of old movie comedies. It's as intense as Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, and without their 'big musical' settings. It's an emotional experience not unlike Visconti's Senso or Ophul's Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Image's DVD of Passion is very nicely appointed, and will thrill Sondheim/Lapine fans. A detailed commentary track has the participation of both Broadway talents, along with four of the stars. There's also a bonus track, an audio-only extended cut of the song No One Has Ever Loved Me.

The flat image looks good (I wish these things were being recorded in HD, or at least 16:9) but a possible camera or replicating flaw has introduced some strange patterns in the bright reds, that increases throughout the show. It's not harmful to the drama or anything of that sort, but it is very noticeable.

These Sondheim shows are really impressive on DVD, and it really is a shame that many other Broadway performances aren't recorded this way. The legal structures of big musicals must be what stops it from happening. Perhaps the producers would consider it a barrier to potential lucrative Hollywood musical adaptations. The leads in Passion aren't household names, but after watching this DVD they're certainly stars to Savant.

On a more direct note, hopefully whatever's keeping the similarly-filmed version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd from DVD, will go away ... my blurry VHS of an old broadcast is pretty worn out.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stephen Sondheim's Passion rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Sondheim, Lapine, Murphy, Shea, Mazzie and Ira Whiteman; Audio extra deleted song
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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