Passion is currently at the Arden Theatre Company. This show is one of Sondheim’s lesser-known musicals, but it also is one of his more powerful shows. Passion is an intense look at the power of love, and what it means to love someone. The show is based on a 19th century novel by Ignio Ugo Tarchetti. The story for the musical was adapted from Ettore Scola's film Passione d'Amore. This musical is set in 19th century Italy, and tells the story of a soldier, Giorgio, who is obsessively pursued by his commanding officer’s ailing cousin, Fosca. However, Giorgio’s affections lie with the beautiful and married Clara. This musical asks the question, can Giorgio’s compassion towards Fosca turn into love?
I had the pleasure to speak with Liz Filios, who plays the role of Fosca in Passion. Filios spoke to me about her character and how Fosca is such a tenacious and fascinating person. In addition, she talked about the importance of Sondheim’s music and why live theatre is such a unique experience.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about Passion?
Liz Filios: Passion takes place in 18th century Italy during the Italian Unification movement. Giorgio, the hero of the story, who lives in Milan, gets stationed at a military outpost. In Milan, Giorgio thinks he is in love with Clara, who is married. The outpost where Giorgio is stationed is a desolate outpost, and he discovers in the first few days of living there that there is a woman, [Fosca,] living upstairs. He hears these horrifying screams, which make him aware of Fosca. Fosca eventually discovers strength and comes downstairs. The first meeting between Giorgio and Fosca is strange and beautiful, and through conversation Giorgio finds out Fosca likes books. Fosca quickly falls in love with Giorgio and that that is part of the obsession.
Gradually, over the course of the show, something bizarre happens – Fosca begins to become well and Giorgio starts to become sick. It is very gothic in the way that illness is romanticized similar to that idea in the book, Dracula. Passion is a story of unrequited love where the sickness transfers from Fosca to Giorgio. Giorgio really begins to understand love because of Fosca, it is as if she cracks his heart open and love takes root. It is a story about strange and impossible things occurring.
Kelli Curtin: How would you describe the music and story of the show?
Liz Filios: The music is complex and beautiful; some people describe it as an opera, although Sondheim is very much against that description. It is an opera in the sense that in opera there are dramatic heights of emotion.
Passion tells a story where the characters are haunted. There is a certain melody and instrument that reflect the emotions of the characters. At the beginning of the show, Clara and Giorgio sing how happy they are in the song, “Happiness.” The lyrics, “All this happiness/Merely from a glance/In the park/So much happiness/So much love.” When I was learning the show, I realized what Sondheim was doing with the music and in the time signatures, and I found it fascinating. Most times music is in 4/4, which is the standard for pop/rock music. Fosca’s music ranges from 4/4 to 3/4 to 12/8. In order to understand Fosca and the music on a deeper level I began highlighting the script and music. For example, the music in 4/4 I highlighted in yellow, 3/4 I highlighted in red and 12/8 I highlighted in blue, etc. What I found through looking at all the different colors I highlighted are that patterns begin to emerge. I found, for example, that when the music was in 4/4 Fosca was being direct, but when the music was in 3/4 she was longing, and I found similar patterns for all the different time signatures. The nuances in the time signatures started to emerge, and I found that I could understand Fosca on a deeper level. I could tell through this philosophy how honest Fosca was being by what time signature Sondheim used. The foundation of Sondheim’s music unlocks the secret to Fosca’s soul.
Kelli Curtin: Since Passion is a lesser known Sondheim piece. Tell me what audiences can expect when coming to see this production at the Arden.
Liz Filios: People can expect to be immersed in a beautiful, dark and mysterious world. Passion is unlike anything people have seen before. There is amazing music, and because of the music, there is incredible orchestration. Anytime a person can be in the same room as a live orchestra it is a special thing because the audience gets to experience the music. Being in the same room as artists and musicians is a very special experience because everyone is present in that room at the same time, and we all get to experience a piece of live theatre together.
Kelli Curtin: Tell me a little about your character, Fosca.
Liz Filios: Fosca is fascinating and strong, She married very young, she was 16, to a Count who did not lover her and abandoned her. When Fosca returns home to her parents she finds them impoverished and sick, and they eventually die. This leads Fosca to live with her cousin. The amount of grief that Fosca endured at such a young age is difficult to comprehend. After she endures all this anguish in her life, she becomes sick and begins having hysterical convulsions. In the 19th century it was terrifying to be a woman and to be sick because the common medical diagnosis for women in this time was “female hysteria.” It is hard to say what kind of medical treatments a woman like Fosca would have to go through. What I understand about Fosca’s ailments is that if she remains calm her disease can be managed. In order to understand Fosca, I did some research about the psyche of the sick, and I read The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. I did this to look at how we understand pain.
I think Fosca feels trapped both psychologically and intellectually. She reads and she is a brilliant person. However, she is not treated as such. This was common for women of this time. I think Fosca was ahead of her time, and she felt she was stuck in a culture where she did not quite fit in. There are lyrics in a flashback scene that reflect this idea: "An unattractive man/Can still have opportunities/Whereas if you're a woman/You either are a daughter or a wife/You marry/Or you're a daughter all your life...." And then later the lyrics echo this same idea that a woman’s purpose is to please, "As long as you're a man/You are what the world will make of you/Whereas if you're a woman/You're only what it sees/A woman is a flower/Whose purpose is to please/Beauty is Power/Longing a disease." These lyrics sum up that Fosca was trapped intellectually because she wanted to be so much more than what was culturally and socially dictated of her during the 19th century.
Kelli Curtin: Who influences you as a performer?
Liz Filios: Ben Vereen is incredible. Also, Forrest McClendon who I really think is our modern day Vereen. In addition, Jen Childs, Scott Greer and Mary Martello. Terry Nolen for his merciless directing, where he pushes me and that makes me a better actor. Lastly, Reuben Mitchell – he is a true inspiration. He was a great friend who died in 2012.
Kelli Curtin: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Liz Filios: Live theatre is a thing that connects us as humans. We all go into a theatre and hear the same thing; we experience this together. We all hear the vibration of the orchestra and the breath of humans putting art on the stage; this is something we all sense together at the same time. Live theatre forces us to be present and experience something collectively.
There was a study done in 2013, and researchers found that when choir members sang together their heart rates not only slowed down, but their heart rates also became synchronized. That study reminds me that live theatre and performances are a powerful thing. It brings people together on an organic level and this fulfills a human need.
Liz Filios can be seen in Arden’s production of Passion. Passion runs at the Arden Theatre through June 28, 2015. For more information and tickets visit their website at www.ardentheatre.org or call the box office at 215-922-1122.
Kelli Curtin is editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on twitter @theatrescribe and on Facebook/theatresensation.
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin