Natascia Diaz has wowed DC audiences for a decade, but when Signature Theatre offered her the lead role of Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, she hesitated. The popular actress has earned Helen Hayes Awards for her work in Rooms at MetroStage; and the same award in 2013 for MetroStage’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; and also earned nods in both 2015 and 2016 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for her work in Signature Theatre’s Three Penny Opera (as Jenny) and West Side Story (as Anita).
But when Signature invited her back to star in Passion, Stephen Sondheim’s lush, romantic 1994 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, the actress wasn’t sure she wanted to jump on board.
Set in Italy, circa 1860, Passion follows a fiery love triangle of Giorgio (Claybourne Elder), a handsome army captain who is transferred to a remote military outpost, his lover Clara and Fosca, the ailing cousin of his superior, who becomes blindingly infatuated with Giorgio.
As one of Sondheim’s least known musicals, Diaz had only a loose understanding of the show. She had done a concert with Euan Morton in 2012 at Signature, performing a retrospective of some of the shows the theater had done, and for 1996, the show featured Passion and she sang two songs from it.
“It was the first time I ever heard or sung anything from that show,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘this is so beautiful,’ but I certainly didn’t assume this was something that I would be right for. I enjoyed singing it and loved the lyricism of it, but I didn’t know anything about it.”
She admits she’s not a “die-hard” musical theater person in the sense that she doesn’t go around listening to different soundtracks, and says, though most actresses have their eye on the roles they would be right for, she just doesn’t.
“But Matthew (Gardiner) knew that he wanted to do this with me way before I had any sense that I would be right for it. I have worked with him several times and there are very few people I trust as a director as much as him,” Diaz says. “When he said he wanted me for Fosca, I just sort of blanched because I didn’t know the score. I just knew she had a sense of vast romantic, sweeping, deeply-felt Italian sensibility—and that’s the language I speak.”
“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.” Matthew Gardner talks with Susan Galbraith about Passion.
Diaz didn’t immediately accept the offer.
“I’m from New York and I’m not used to having things handed to me; I actually asked them if I could look at the music and work on it and sing a couple of songs like an audition because it felt like we had skipped a step. I’m used to going to 25 auditions to prove myself. I wanted to get my feet wet and see what it was like.”
She prepared by listening to different recordings and singing the songs around her house and finally came in to Signature and sang them with musical director Jon Kalbfleisch in front of Gardiner.
“I was scared to death,” Diaz says. “I have never played a part this large in a musical. That was the bulk of the nervousness for me.”
Now keep in mind, this is an actress who performed as Aldonza on Broadway (covering Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) opposite Bryan Stokes Mitchell in Man of La Mancha, but that role only has three songs.
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“I have this memory of Stokes singing ‘The Impossible Dream’ to me and that’s one of my top 10 moments of my life,” she says. “In comparison to that, this is unabashedly more naked, much more vulnerable. Aldonza is defended and she’s brash and she’s sassy. And Fosca is a beautiful recluse.”
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After her “audition,” she agreed to be part of it and was excited to play the part. What helped Diaz prepare for the role was reading the original 19th century novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti.
She was doing a one-week engagement of Grand Hotel, The Musical at City Center Encores! in New York this past March, and worked with a pianist while in Manhattan to learn the score of Passion. Once she had that down, she started reading the novel.
“The novel floored me,” Diaz said. “It has all the answers that the show does not provide because there’s not enough, and it goes into incredible, delicate detail—terrible and vicious detail—the dynamic between Fosca and Giorgio is so much more than they could put in the libretto. Sondheim really made a beautiful treatment—they softened the effect of the book and dignified Fosca in a way. He healed her in his show.”
Once reading the book, Diaz could clearly hear Fosca’s voice in her head, and felt an immediate kinship to the reclusive woman.
“I know why she is the way she is. I admire her. I get why she’s in pain and I hope that I will give people a different experience of her,” Diaz says. “I am very much resisting all of these judgmental adjectives that have been used to describe her since Passion first came out—obsessive, crazy. When someone needs something and they have suffered, that kind of judgement is short-sided and cruel.”
“She’s delicate, she’s intelligent, she plays the piano, and people around her didn’t get her,” Diaz says. “Because she’s ugly, her worth as a woman is nothing. You find out she’s just incredibly expressive and morbidly wants love and the only thing more monstrous than how she looks is her sensitivity. She knows she has the need to be loved.”
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