By May S. Ruiz
Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Passion’ takes center stage at Boston Court Pasadena from March 5 to April 19, 2020. Based on the film ‘Passione d’Amore’ directed by Ettore Scola, after the novel ‘Fosca’ by I.U. Tarchetti, this production is directed by Artistic Director emeritus Michael Michetti. It stars Richard Bermudez as Giorgio, Bryce Charles as Clara, and Meghan Andrews as Fosca.
‘Passion’ transports us to 1860s Italy and tells the story of Giorgio, a handsome young army captain, who falls in love with the beautiful Clara and the unattractive and sickly Fosca, who challenges his notion of what love is. It explores love with all its perplexities – desire, obsession, lust, and madness.
Director Michael Michetti and lead actor Richard Bermudez graciously sit down with me to talk about the play and share their thoughts about the characters in it.
“I saw the show on Broadway in its original show and I’ve seen other productions since,” begins Michetti. “In 1999, I actually directed a premiere concert version of it in Los Angeles for Musical Theatre Guild, which does a week of rehearsals and puts up semi-staged concert productions of rarely done musicals. We did it for the Pasadena Playhouse for one night and we brought it back for one more night at Reprise at UCLA. This is the first time I’m directing it again, but I’ve been in love with it since I first saw the original.”
Michetti expounds, “Our production will be a departure from the original Broadway show because we’re staging it in a much smaller venue. But we’re utilizing our intimate space as an occasion to focus on the love story while still being textually faithful to the script and score the writers wrote. It feels to me like this is a show that is rich enough in its writing that, like doing Shakespeare, you can keep going back and, if you are true to what the authors have created, come up with many ways to reinterpret it. Having said that, I think people who know the show will see different things than what they’ve seen before.
“We’re doing a full production with a cast of 12 plus five musicians, which is pretty big for Boston Court Pasadena. We’re not expanding the space for the show, but we’ll be using all of it. We’ll have a two-story set and the orchestra will be on stage under the balcony. ‘Passion’ is a love triangle at its heart – it often breaks down to two- and three-person scenes. But it also takes place within the context of a military base where Giorgio, the protagonist, is stationed. It’s a unit set so we have objects to help change the volume of the space – several chairs, a small writing desk, a platform that doubles as a table and a bed, and a series of sheer hanging drapes that the cast moves around to transform the space.”
This reinterpretation is set during the same time as in the original play. Michetti describes, “It takes place in 1863 in Northern Italy and there are behaviors that would not be commonplace now, but are true to that period, including the climactic moment when the characters are challenging each other to a duel, and so forth. The other thing that’s noteworthy is, as Giorgio is torn between these two women in his life, you feel compassion for the women in the way society has created constrictions on the kinds of roles that they can have in the world. And, interestingly, Clara, the young woman Giorgio is in love with at the beginning of the play, is very bound by the social mores at the time. In the same token, Fosca is viewed through that lens but she doesn’t behave as the world wants her to. While I think there’s something liberating about that, she also pays a price for it because people judge her for not following the rules.”
I ask if Fosca is using her difficult circumstances to manipulate Giorgio. Michetti replies, “The script makes a case for a woman who is not attractive by traditional societal standards, is sickly and, for over a decade, has been parentless and living on a military base without female role models to learn from. At one point, in one of her most vulnerable moments, she says, ‘No one has taught me how to love.’ A lot of her actions is naiveté and impulsive rather than consciously manipulative.”
However, one can also question Giorgio’s behavior – when the story begins, he’s in love with a married woman and then he falls in love with another woman who’s an unlikely choice – I remind Michetti. “Giorgio is written as a man of moral purity but he finds himself in difficult situations,” remarks Michetti. “Fosca sees Giorgio as kind, compassionate, and empathetic – qualities that a lot of the men in this military base don’t have. Giorgio, on the one hand, is repelled by her and, on the other, is sympathetic to her and has feelings for her. A part of his journey is about realizing that there is something to the kind of love that Fosca is able to feel where she is literally able to give everything, including possibly her life for a love that is a different definition of love that he had known before.
“It’s an interesting challenge the writers have set up because in the beginning, he is seemingly in love with the perfect companion for him. But as the play goes on, you start to appreciate that it’s not quite as perfect as it was made out to be and the woman we would never imagine he could have feelings for, has challenged him to think about love in new ways and one he’s come to genuinely love.”
How believable is that for the audience?, I query. Michetti says, “That’s one of the dividing points in the original production. There were people who found it wholly convincing, very moving, and really beautiful. And there were others who were not able to fully buy into it. That has been a big part of our approach to this production – to make his journey to be apparently impossible at the beginning and inevitable by the time he gets there. There are several opportunities within the script and score to tell that story and we’re doing our best to mine them. It’s absolutely a challenge but one that I’m excited to tackle – if I feel it’s easy and I know exactly how to handle it, it’s never as creatively exciting.
“I’m working with a marvelous team who’s eager to tell the story and take on the challenge. I met Richard for the first time in the audition and he’s terrific. I have worked with Meghan who’s playing Fosca and I have seen a few other cast members. Bryce, who’s playing Clara, was just in the outstanding production of ‘Ragtime’ at the Pasadena Playhouse. Because it’s a musical, it requires amazing singers with amazing instruments but, honestly, it needs people with equally strong acting skills. It’s about finding artists with all the attributes and getting the right balance between them as well. Some people who auditioned sang beautifully but when we asked them to act it, they missed an aspect of the character and vice versa. It’s always the more gratifying when you find the people, as I believe we have here, who hit both sides of it.”
What was he looking for with the different roles, I ask. Michetti responds, “Giorgio is, for much of the play, a reactive rather than active character. He is someone who tends to sublimate his own needs in order to take care of others. Yet he is the protagonist of the play – it’s his journey we’re following – so we needed someone who can be dynamic and compelling. He’s a good leader, organized, and efficient but he is also compassionate and a lover of literature and is a deep, thoughtful thinker. He has both traditional masculine military side and a side who has a more feminine approach to things in terms of his sensitivity which is what Fosca is attracted to. We needed someone who exemplifies all of the contradictory aspects of Giorgio, and Richard embodies all that.
“For the role of Fosca, one of the challenges is that the original Fosca was played by Donna Murphy who did it so beautifully and iconically, and there’s a tendency to use that performance as the benchmark. And while I thought her performance was really brilliant, we’re taking a different approach. Meghan and I are less interested in finding the extremes of her grotesqueness and more interested in exploring a woman who is a misfit, but not necessarily a grotesque person. There isn’t a lot of discussion about her appearance. Nevertheless, I don’t think Fosca needs to be tremendously ugly. And, by the way, the actress who originally played her is a beautiful woman as is Meghan and she is doing an outstanding job.
“In terms of Clara, I wanted someone who is, as the script required, beautiful and charming and who can play the tragedy of a woman who is caught within the social constraints of her time. She is an upper-class woman who comes to discover that if she were to give everything to this relationship, she would lose a lot of things that are important to her. Bryce is fully embracing that and doing just beautiful work.”
Bermudez arrives at this juncture and I also ask him if the premise of the show is credible. He notes, “Therein lies the issue and that’s what we explore for an hour and 50 minutes. It’s a very difficult question and that may be why ‘Passion’ is not popularly staged. My character essentially goes through this very emotional and, at times, disorienting and overwhelming journey where his fundamental belief system about how he envisions love, and what relationships look and feel like is challenged by someone.
“Fosca disrupts Giorgio’s mental and physical health. Through all that, he comes to realize that this woman has opened a door to a whole new way of looking at life. What we hope to do is to make that love that he’s developed for her believable and that it’s sincere. He sees in her someone who loves him for no other reason than to love him in the most selfless and genuine way, asking for nothing. It’s not a love that he has ever known. It’s juxtaposed by his relationship with Clara, which is a very conditional love. They enjoy the moment but to really have a life with her, he will have to wait for a number of years, when it’s convenient for her to leave her husband. And Fosca questions if that’s really love. This is in the 1860s, in a patriarchal society, when women aren’t allowed to have much of a voice in anything. And here is this woman who challenges not just men, but the military, and normal conventions. She’s a fully formed person in a society where he’s not used to meeting people like her. He’s initially attracted to her intellect – in the script, she talks about his favorite book and he is surprised that she likes it as well. That fascination with her intellect leads to the unexpected – he realizes that the physical is fleeting whereas real love is grounded in something much, much deeper than just physicality.”
She sounds like someone obsessed, which is rather disturbing, I observe. Bermudez clarifies, “At the outset, it could look like a fatal attraction-type of obsession. But it really isn’t because deep down she doesn’t want to hurt him, she wants to see him happy. But she’s also a woman who’s not used to delving into this kind of feeling. She herself is going on her own journey of how to express that and she recognizes that she doesn’t conform to normal conventions – she’s not supposed to ask a man to kiss her, to ask for a date. Ultimately, there is something very attractive about someone who doesn’t care about appearances or being judged for her love.”
Asked how he relates to Giorgio, Bermudez answers, “I relate to his sensitivity. I played a lot of sports growing up; in a lot of ways I was a jock. But I also played an instrument, sang in choir, and did musical theatre, all of which require a degree of sensitivity which your average jock may not necessarily possess. His intellectual curiosity appeals to me as well because I was also an avid reader growing up. As a small child, I was always curious about the big books my dad was reading. I probably read books far above my intellectual capacity at that time. Additionally, I can relate to his empathy. It’s something I value in people and relationships – the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. I think it’s fundamentally what we do as actors and performers – we make a living being empathetic. I have to say, though, that I’ve always prided myself in being able to use both hemispheres of my brain equally. In fact, I’m an actuary during the day; I’ve always done well in the math and sciences and scored highly in the creative and writing subjects. And that helps me feel fulfilled because I have diverse interests.”
Bermudez confesses that he has never seen ‘Passion’ performed, “I’m not alone in that. Several of my friends, with whom I’ve done theatre for a long time, haven’t either. Even my closest friend who said ‘Oh, that’s one of my top two favorite shows. I adore it!’ and when I asked, ‘Really, where did you see it?’ answered, “I’ve never seen it.’ But you get that reaction a lot! It’s one of those shows that’s very well regarded and revered among the people who know musicals because they know how difficult the subject matter is. But the difficulty is also what makes it rewarding if you can nail it right.
“I think it’s also one of the most impactful shows that I’ve ever read. We’ve only been rehearsing for a week and a half, and I’ve already been challenged so much – not just in the script but the extent of what I have to do. But I consider Michael savant when it comes to this material – I know he studied it for decades, he knows it intimately, and he’s meditated on it. He’s familiar with every facet of it. And I appreciate the careful attention he puts in it. We have the luxury of having a pretty extended rehearsal period, from my experience at least. At times we’d just sit and analyze a couple of words for a half hour. The first few nights, instead of singing the songs, we spoke them because we wanted to get to the intent of what we’re saying. We’re not just singing songs because they sound pretty, every single word and line mean something and we want that to be reflected in our acting choices. And we don’t want the music to necessarily inform those choices. It’s been very, very exciting!”
Continues Bermudez, “We’re taking a fresh approach, it’s pared down. Our musical director Darryl Archibald is doing a unique arrangement of the music – he’s orchestrating it to fit the space. He has done several original orchestrations … I’ve worked with him on other shows and I have so much faith in him. He’s just brilliant and I’m sure he’s going to do an amazing job with this. Also, since we have an intimate space, we’re thinking of not having body mics. There’s something about the purity of an unamplified voice that we just forget what that even sounds like. That’s exciting too.”
Michetti inserts, “I just want to tack on something to what Richard said. Darryl is such a gifted man and I’m very excited about the orchestration. He’s reducing it to a string trio – cello, viola, violin – one reed which will double clarinet and flute, and a keyboard. It’s sort of the composition of an orchestra that will be able to adjust the dynamics to support the unamplified voice in the space. He’s an amazing musician and has fantastic taste but he’s also interested in how the musical choices support the story-telling. He’s always asking what’s going on dramatically – ‘the music is saying this but is it dramatically playing against that?’ And in some cases that’s true. He challenges us with some really wonderful questions. I worked with Darryl a number of times in the past and it’s a treat to be in the room with him again.”
“This is a musical interspersed with dialogue,” discloses Michetti. “It’s an interesting structure because they’ve written it so that there’s no opportunity at the end of musical numbers for applause. The first time it breaks for applause is at the end of the play. It weaves seamlessly between music and dialogue – the songs are structured so that the music transitions into underscoring and dialogue takes over.”
Performing for almost two hours without intermission can be tricky for the artists. According to Bermudez, his character is on stage for the most part of it. He confesses, “I like to hydrate so this presents a conundrum. Literally, as I was reading through the whole show, I was thinking ‘Okay, I think I have about 37 seconds here. I can maybe sneak off very quickly.’ The last thing I want is to have this profound climactic moment and I’m dying because I really need to go to the bathroom.
“There aren’t moments in the show built for applause. Even if we sing these beautiful numbers, it’s like a freight train – it keeps going. Michael brought up a very good point yesterday when we talked about it – ostensibly applause is for the audience to show their appreciation for the performers. At the same time, the audience feels a catharsis when they applaud. So they’re going to have to hold that back throughout the show. And for me, this show builds and builds where I break down physically and emotionally until I come to the moment where I’m near death and I kind of have an epiphany. So the audience will also have all that pent-up emotion and the release at the end. That’s going to be interesting.
“Reading through the play from start to finish with the music last night, I also realized how quickly I have to reset between scenes. They go rapidly and my challenge is – I don’t want to have an emotional hangover from scene to scene. Some scenes are sad and emotionally fraught, but you don’t want to have that lethargy for the next. There are many scenes that happen after a couple of weeks have gone by, but it may only be 20 seconds for me. So yesterday I got a really good sense of how hard it will be. It is a test of stamina and commitment for this company of actors and Michael is confident they’re up to the task.”
As to the audience takeaway, Bermudez pronounces, “I fully accept that we probably will have different reactions – it’s not for everybody. I feel that we will have done our job if people talked about the show afterwards … if they want to analyze our motivations and some of the choices that we made. To me, the most exciting reaction to a material – whether it’s a movie, or a play, or a musical – is when I can’t stop thinking about it. Sure, I want them to enjoy our singing and acting, and there’s space for that – Michael has put together a phenomenal cast. But I also want the audience to think about their own definition of love, what relationships are, what that looks like, and what we’re willing to do in the name of love, really, when it came down to it. We can all profess all the things that we’ll do for the people we love but what will we actually do?”
To which Michetti says, “I fully agree and I hope that people will come in with their own ideas about what love is or what an ideal love is. I certainly don’t think this play is trying to present the ideal love but I hope that people will go along on the journey and be moved by it. Even the love that Giorgio and Fosca arrive at is not perfect and not without consequences but all of the principal characters are doing their best. Last night, after a week of rehearsal, we did our first singing and reading through the play and I was very moved by the writing of the show and, already in this early stage, the beautiful commitment of the performers to tell the story of complicated people trying to navigate the choppy waters of love.”
Does it have a happy ending? I ask, and Bermudez responds, “It depends on who you are.”
Acquiesces Michetti, “It isn’t a strictly happy ending because there are consequences to the choices they make and there is loss in addition to … I can’t find the opposite of loss.” Gain, I supply, and he says, “Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly what I mean either, but I’ll use it for lack of a better word. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s something set up earlier in the play that comes to a conclusion that I find tremendously satisfying when Giorgio realizes that Fosca had an understanding of him deeper than he could have understood at that moment. That comes back at the end of the play, which I find moving and satisfying.”
It’s an enigmatic response but, fittingly, ‘Passion’ is about that bewildering emotion we call ‘love.’ And it can mean as many things to as many people as it touches.