Q&A: Signature Theatre sets Stephen Sondheim record by staging ‘Passion’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Passion' at Signature Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Signature Theatre just set a record for the most Stephen Sondheim shows.

The record-breaking 29th production is the rarely produced “Passion,” which won four Tonys on Broadway, including Best Musical of 1994, and now arrives in Shirlington through Sept. 23.

“That’s the most Sondheim has ever been produced by any theater in America,” director Matthew Gardiner told WTOP. “Nobody writes better musicals than Sondheim, from ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Gypsy’ to ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Follies’ and now ‘Passion,’ which is one of his more complicated and challenging pieces. … It’s his masterpiece. It’s one of his most perfect.”

Pairing Sondheim’s music with James Lapine’s book, the story follows a fiery love triangle in 1860s Italy, where a handsome army captain named Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) is transferred to a remote military outpost. Here, he falls for Fosca (Natascia Diaz), the ailing cousin of his superior, while still writing love letters to his long-distance lover Clara (Steffanie Leigh).

“It’s just this incredible Italian story about a very unbelievable, very strange and interesting circumstance, at a time where a lot of societal things were acting upon people,” Diaz said. “How people could reconcile their beings, their passions, their desires and who they actually are. I think that speaks so much to audiences, because we still grapple with how to be your authentic self and really own all parts of ourselves and love. It’s very bold! It’s just very bold.”

During this steamy love triangle, the themes shatter the conventions of other love stories.

“The show looks at our ideas of what love is,” Gardiner said. “It challenges many love tropes that we’ve become accustomed to. We’re used to two really attractive people falling in love really easily. We’re also willing to accept two less-than-attractive people falling in love if their personalities are pleasing. We’re even willing to accept a man who is less attractive falling in love with another woman. But this looks at what beauty means, what we expect from love.”

Diaz admits that she was rather unfamiliar with the plot until preparing for this production.

“I actually didn’t know a lot about this piece,” Diaz said. “I had heard about it, you spoke about it in dark rooms in hushed tones like, oh ‘Passion,’ this very epic, tempestuous show that had affected a lot of people very, very strongly. I just got to know the music very slowly and it’s truly some of the most sweeping melodies. They just grab you in the most epic, poetic [way]. He really just unleashes all of his romanticism with this score. It feels very personal.”

Diaz says that this personal expression erupts into a universal rallying cry for all women.

“She speaks her heart, she needs things, she’s in pain, she’s suffering and she asks for what she wants and needs,” Diaz said. “That’s something women did not do [back then], especially not ‘ugly’ women. Your only currency as a woman was how lovely and how pretty you were so that you would be desirable. … She’s unbelievably intelligent, sensitive, self-reflective, astute and passionate. … Just because you are passionate and feel things deeply, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it doesn’t mean you’re damaged — it means you feel. It means you’re alive!”

This passion is expressed through song, including the powerful showtune “Loving You.”

“Sondheim does so much structure within the music,” Diaz said. “It takes an incredible journey where Clara is in one place musically and Fosca is in one place. … As the show progresses, they literally switch sides where the themes Fosca started out with, Clara ends up with.”

This “switching sides” also unfolds visually with a two-sided runway stage, dividing the 277-seat theater in half thanks to a unique concoction by Gardiner and set designer Lee Savage.

“We have the luxury of rearranging the seats based on the show and the story we want to tell,” Gardiner said. “This is the first time we’ve ever done something in a runway setup. … The audience is on two sides, which presents its own challenges to make sure that the story is being told equally to both sides. … I find it really exciting. I just think it’s a really exciting dynamic, especially for this story about Giorgio, who is being pulled to two sides.”

As for Diaz, it’s just the latest in a string of dominant performances on Signature’s stage, from Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Anita in “West Side Story.” The latter included one of the theater’s most stunning moments of actors secretly fighting through an injury.

“It’s the first preview of ‘West Side Story’ at Signature Theatre, we’re all totally excited, we’re ready,” Diaz said. “My Bernardo, Sean Ewing … rips his meniscus in the first 10 minutes! … He comes running offstage like, ‘I’m down.’ … So, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Don’t panic, what should we do? The next thing we have is the ‘Dance at the Gym,’ so I’m thinking no lifts, we won’t do that, you just stand there and I’ll dance around you and we’ll sell it.’ We went back out there!”

That’s when double trouble struck.

“I’m dancing around him, sassing it up and we get to the running lift, which we don’t do,” Diaz said. “Normally, I’m up in the air, but since I’m down on the floor, I run right into Graziella, who literally kicks me in the face! … I left the stage and blood was all over my purple dress. … ‘She’s now ruined the $5,000 dress!’ … I’m sopping up the blood and they’re rubbing it out of the dress. … Cut to eight minutes [later], and I’m on the stage in my purple dress, the blood had stopped and there was no stain. … There was no trace on that beautiful dress. Nothing!”

“Miracle crew backstage,” Gardiner said.

Say no more — that’s Signature for ya.

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full conversation with Gardiner and Diaz below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Natascia Diaz & Matthew Gardiner (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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