Extreme beauty XXV: Sondheim's Passion

That sadness in your eyes
That day
When we glanced
At each other in the park. . .

All this happiness
Merely from a glance
In the park.

With those absurdly simple but ingenious lines, Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Passion, begins. This has always been Sondheim's forte: deceptively simple lyrics begin a song or a scene before blossoming into larger themes of increasing complexity, the brilliance of which has never been surpassed in the entire history of the American musical theater. Actually, the show opens a few lines before the excerpt above is sung, in what has got to be the sexiest opening scene Broadway had ever seen up until that point in 1994, the year the show opened. The scene I'm referring to involves two lovers, totally naked, sweating it out in bed, singing of their love: "I'm so happy, I'm afraid I'll die in your arms." The romantic in Sondheim conveys--in the style of a haiku--both aurally and visually the orgasm(s) that had just occurred, from which the lovers, the incandescent Clara and the handsome Giorgio, are basking in its afterglow. No other opening scene since then has captured an audience's attention in such a visceral way. But the heart of the story transpires between the platonic love (at first) that Giorgio, a few scenes later after that eye-popping bed scene, shares with the almost grotesque Fosca, a woman who suffers from severe melancholy of which Giorgio can only heal through affectionate words of love. Sondheim, ever the non-traditionalist, encapsulates the nature of their relationship in six simple words: "They hear drums, we hear music." But then the composer's genius goes into overdrive with a series of heart-rending "letter scenes," a highly effective and affecting "invention" much in the style of Onegin's Tatyana but not at all like it, for the three lovers read (or sing) aloud the other's letters, often containing sentences of staggering beauty, thus reiterating the observation that people in love--truly in love--tend to know what the other is thinking or feeling even before the beloved knows it herself: You in me, me in you. . .

I wish I could forget you,
Erase you from my mind
I wish that I could love you. . .
A love that, like a knife,
Has cut into a life
I wanted left alone.
A love I may regret,
But one I can't forget.

In five succinct lines, Sondheim paints a scene that give new meaning to the martyrdom that is unrequited love:

Fosca: "Do you think my heart is good?"
Giorgio: "Yes, I do."
Fosca: "How do the good hearts beat?
Can you distinguish them from the bad?
Listen to mine. My heart says it loves you.

I was all of thirteen when I saw Passion for the first time, in its original run on Broadway. What does one know at that age? But even then, I somehow sensed an extraordinarily profound thing unfolding before my eyes and ears. This was not Cats, Les Misérables, or Phantom of the Opera, but musical theater elevated to high art, the subtle beauty and magnitude of which would take me years before I understood full well its meaning and myriad revelations: "Die for me? What kind of love is that?" "The truest love." "To die loved is to have lived." Passion in an unforgettable experience in the theater that reveals the power of a visionary's inexhaustible imagination, artistic originality, and featuring lyrics that appear to say very little--stark, devoid of embroidery--but yet says it all: "What is love unless it is unconditional?"