ON THE RECORD: A New Recording of Stephen Sondheim's Passion and "Judy Kuhn: All This Happiness"

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07 Jul 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column examines the new recording of Stephen Sondheim's Passion and "Judy Kuhn: All This Happiness."

Passion [PS Classics]

I hesitated listening to the newest recording of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion, this being the cast album of John Doyle's production at the Classic Stage Company. This is not because I don't like the score; I fell under its spell when the show opened at the Plymouth in 1994 — a minority opinion, at the time — and have championed it ever since. And not because I have a favorite Passion recording; the two prior English-language recordings, from Broadway and the 1997 London production, are equally enjoyable. Nor was my hesitation a reflection of my opinion of the CSC version, which I found the most effective Passion I've seen.

No, my problem with Passion is that I can't simply listen to it; I become immersed in it. I can happily sample a track or four of A Little Night Music or Follies (or, for that matter, She Loves Me or even Make a Wish); place it on pause; and either return later or start again another day. Listening to Passion, though, commands my attention. I am taken up by Sondheim's score as if caught by a spring storm in a ruined castle atop a craggy mountaintop. Don't move, don't stir; just sit there and experience it.

Nevertheless, I dutifully put on the new Passion so that I could at least start the review process, and found myself listening to the whole thing twice through. Seven times over four days, and "Is This What You Call Love?" is playing as I sit writing this. I am yet again in a Passion spell, and I hope to emerge by Wednesday. Maybe if I put on Mame or something.

Kuhn in Passion.
photo by Joan Marcus

Passion is, musically, a marvel. This is perhaps Sondheim's most intricate score, the music woven through the piece like a great tapestry. Numerous motifs recur time and again, in different situations and different voices; as the characters alter their perceptions, they can express new emotions with the same musical vocabulary. Sometimes we get different characters singing variations of the same material, other times he gives us the same characters singing the same material — only different, and, occasionally, both at once. With repeated listening, one appreciates this more and more. The mark of a great score, though, is that on first hearing it sounds remarkably right even though you can't possibly absorb the nuances. Passion is not Sondheim's greatest score, nor certainly not his most successful. It is, though, his most passionate score.

The CSC cast album does not exactly give us the CSC cast. Judy Kuhn and Ryan Silverman recreate their equally excellent Fosca and Giorgio, but the Clara of the occasion is missing. As was much discussed at the time, Melissa Errico opened the show on Feb. 28 (with previews from Feb. 8) but developed a vocal problem in mid-March. As a result, an understudy played the final month of performances. The April 8 recording session was postponed until May 13 — long after the show closed — but to no avail; with Errico still indisposed, PS Classics drafted Rebecca Luker to sing the role.


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