No one can put music and lyrics together the way Stephen Sondheim has done – astonishingly – for decades, since the mid-1950’s. In my interview with Matthew Gardiner, who is directing a new production of Passion for Signature Theatre, I asked him not only about where he thinks the musical sits in the Sondheim canon but about his journey opening up this complicated, emotionally-charged, and spell-binding work.
Susan Galbraith: In a London Review of Books 2010 article, David Thompson wrote that Sondheim is “America’s master of musical theatre” then adds, “as long as we are prepared for the work to be brilliant but not relaxed.” Do you agree with “America’s master?” And what do you make of “brilliant but not relaxed?”
Matthew Gardiner: He is definitely America’s master for me. As somebody who has directed a lot of musicals and a lover of musical theater, there is no one who even comes close to Stephen Sondheim when it come to the depth of his writing. It’s beautiful and stunning and rich.
And interestingly, but I’m not quite sure what the quote means, “Interesting but not relaxed.” I think maybe it suggests that Sondheim is never taking the easy route, he is always approaching a new subject or topic and that is nowhere more apparent than what he does with Passion and the tropes he and James Lapine (Book) took on in following this love story. Certainly, he is also challenging his audiences.
Eric Schaeffer has made Signature Theatre’s name in great part because of its re-tooling of Stephen Sondheim works and finding what I’ll call their ‘inner heartbeats.” What have you and Eric shared about approaching Sondheim in general?
The biggest thing that Eric says to me is the importance of trusting the material. So often when I have seen Sondheim not work for me, I sense they’re not trusting the writers. Theater for me is never about being overly conceptual or trying to make my voice more important than the writer’s. When you have a writer like Stephen and a writer like James Lapine (who, it is important to note, not only wrote the book for this as well as Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, but was trusted to direct all three shows by Sondheim for Broadway,) you’re in good hands. If you trust it, if you believe in what they’ve written, then it unfolds naturally and you find the heart of the show and you find what is deeply, deeply personal about every one of his shows.
When he was first writing, perhaps less so now, some people viewed him as overly intellectual and pretentious. I think his writing is so far from that. His works are more human and more real than any other musicals than have ever been written.
Certainly, Passion is arguably the most emotional of his works, coming during a period of his life when, he wrote somewhere, he was falling fully in love for the first time. For those of us who love this musical – as you’ve just said it’s “so human” and “so real”— the emotional journeys in Passion, even its emotional messiness, is part of its glory. What, in your mind, are the unique strengths and challenges of this Sondheim musical?
at Signature Theatre
closes September 23, 2018
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The challenge of the musical is to understand the journeys that Giorgio and Fosca make. I think there have been a lot of misconceptions around the piece. Maybe because of bad marketing in some situations, or maybe because of the original film, it has become known as the piece about the crazy, obsessive woman who stalks a man. Someone said to me the other day, “I don’t like that musical because it seems to be Sondheim suggesting that in order to love someone you have to want to claw out their eyeballs and climb inside of them.” I found that statement both ridiculous and hilarious. At the same time it is so not what the musical is. There is a misconception that the show is about Giorgio becoming more like Fosca or that Fosca’s way of loving is the ultimate way of loving and that what is being argued for is that abandon and relentlessness is the only way to love.
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That isn’t what the show is about either. The show is about two people who meet somewhere in the middle on this journey. Fosca may begin in a relentless manner because she is sick, because she is dying. She has never felt love or the way love should be experienced. She has never experienced life the way she wants to, and through the course of the show, while she cracks something open in Giorgio, he teaches her something. There’s a beautiful moment in the train scene when he says, “It is because of your relentlessness that I can’t have feelings for you” (and not her looks.) Then she responds, “ No one has ever taught me how to love.” There is this beautiful exchange that happens after that in the journey of the show where we watch her temper herself.
It is very easy to approach the show and have Giorgio standoffish and push her away, and think she is a crazy woman. Then at the end of the show, he is supposed to fall in love with her. It doesn’t work. The audience is going, “Where did that come from?” The challenge of the show is to balance their journeys, and then the arc of it is understood by both actors and ultimately by the audience.
Perhaps some audience members won’t go for it. Perhaps for them, it doesn’t fit into the way a love story should go. It doesn’t fit into their tropes of a love story. What I have said in response and to challenge those people is by asking, “Why do you think this is unacceptable yet we are able to accept the love story of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Note Dame, or The Phantom of the Opera, or Beauty and the Beast? Why are we willing to accept the beautiful woman falling in love with the less than desirable man? There are a lot of expectations and cultural assumptions that we place on love stories and expectations and values we place on women when they are not beautiful.
But that is so interesting. Could that explain why its original production on Broadway, despite winning the Tony for Best Musical, had such a short run? Was it also timing of a work, especially coming to Sondheim, that it felt too spare and exposing?
Well the original production had its flaws and its challenges. I also think Sondheim in general is one step ahead of us. We seem to appreciate him only later. His brilliance always seems to go unnoticed in its first viewing.
Yes, I would certainly agree with that. The piece shows us about what we look for in love and what we experience in love. At the same time, I don’t think the show intends to dictate what love is. It is opening up the idea of what love can be.
I don’t know if you have ever seen the Charlie Rose interview with Sondheim that happened when Passion came to Broadway, and Sondheim was very resistant to the comparisons to his personal life. But obviously you bring whatever of yourself to whatever you do. I bring myself to this. Claybourne (Claybourne Elder) and Natascia (Natascia Diaz) bring themselves to it. Everyone involved, cast and crew bring themselves to this in doing the show. The past four weeks have been transformative because you enter into this with certain ideas and expectations and thoughts about what love is. This show really challenges that.
You used the word “transformative,” would you say something more about your personal journey with this work and what have you found in exploring the work in rehearsal?
A lot of it has been about my preconceived notions about the journeys of Giorgio and Fosca. Just from being in the room with those too actors and exploring this text, I’ve done a 180 about how the piece unfolds. It’s also transformative because it’s a hard piece, a hard piece to be in rehearsal with eight hours a day. It’s relentless. It’s all consuming. It asks so much of everyone in the room to be vulnerable and open. In those situations you learn a lot about yourself. You have to. That’s the way it works. To be vulnerable is the way we get to the heart of the piece and the core of Sondheim’s writing.
And you are asking the same of your audience too, I suspect. The story concerns a love triangle, but it’s the character of Fosca that has been most hotly debated. In your work with actress Natascia Diaz, is she a woman willing to risk all in love or a neurotic vampire woman? Is there anything you particularly want people to take away about the character?
First and foremost, the show is Giorgio’s story. But it’s curious, yes, people want to talk to the actress playing Fosca. She’s like Richard III in that respect, the difficult character that asks an actress to be less than desirable. So, there’s always something interesting in that. But the journey is really Giorgio’s.
But having said that, Natascia has given so much heart and so much of herself to the role. We want all the roles to be sympathetic, and Natascia is the only actress to do the role at this moment with me and she is making really thrilling choices and being honest.
[Watch for our interview with Natascia Diaz later this week.]
Did you choose to direct this?
I did not choose to direct it. But it was certainly high up on my list. Eric said, “We’re going to do Passion and I want you to direct this time. I’ve directed it enough.” But in terms of my wish list of shows, there’s probably ten Sondheim shows. I want to direct all of them. Anytime you get to work on a Stephen Sondheim musical, it’s a gift.
You know, Passion was one of the first productions I saw as a fully professional production. I had seen several things in video form or in community theaters. I saw Eric’s production of Passion at the Sondheim Celebration. It was hugely inspirational and a defining moment for me as an artist. It was the moment I turned to my brother and said, “I have to meet Eric Schaeffer.”
The piece is important in my life. So when he presented this gift, well, moments like that don’t come that often. So you rise to that challenge, and it’s thrilling. There is simply nothing better than being in a room directing a Sondheim musical.
Anything else you would like to add?
Our production is in this 277-seat theater but we are not skimping in any way. It has the full original orchestration and cast size. We never want to try and figure out how to do something on a significantly smaller scale with reduced manpower. This is a big production and it deserves that. At the same time it’s a smaller space, and I think that’s the way to do this story for all of us to be as close as possible to these characters and be forced to experience the story in an intimate way.