WASHINGTON -- One of the biggest misconceptions about Stephen Sondheim is that he thinks too much -- that his music and lyrics are better appreciated for their cleverness than their emotional punch.
In fact, Sondheim has written some of the most poignant, lacerating and, yes, romantic love songs ever performed on a Broadway stage. And while he has been famously guarded about the personal experiences that may inform this work, several of his musicals have offered titillating clues.
Two that opened recently as part of Kennedy Center's ongoing Sondheim Celebration, Passion and Merrily We Roll Along, seem particularly ripe for analysis. Written at different stages in Sondheim's life and career, they focus on disparate love triangles. One is rooted in friendship, the other in desire; both are unconventional, impractical and ultimately doomed. Neither show ranks among his most consistent efforts, but both offer unusually vivid glimpses into the heart of their creator.
1994's Passion was crafted while the very private composer was getting into the deep end of what has been described as a uniquely enduring and fulfilling relationship. Derived from a 19th-century novel, the musical focuses on a soldier who is torn between the beautiful, married woman he loves and a frail, homely creature who pursues him relentlessly. The predicament suggests no obvious parallels to Sondheim's real-life scenario. But Passion illustrates love's ability to transcend vice, virtue and even reason with the force of someone realizing, perhaps for the first time, that no one is alone.
Leading man Michael Cerveris, with his shaved head and slow-burning charisma, expertly juggles the awkwardness and feral charisma that make Giorgio, the soldier, a complex and fascinating hero. And Rebecca Luker's wholesome good looks and warm, caressing soprano are ideal for Clara, the vital but elusive adulteress whose allure dims as Giorgio falls under the spell of the desperate, obsessive Fosca.
Judy Kuhn gives a transcendent performance in the latter role, evoking pity and empathy without shrinking from her disturbing and irritating qualities. Blossoming as her affection is realized and inspiring devotion in return, this Fosca fully relays the power that Sondheim movingly describes as ''a love as pure as breath/As permanent as death . . . /That like a knife/Has cut into a life/I wanted left alone.''
1981's Merrily is less lofty in its agenda, and though conceived by a younger Sondheim, more cynical. Adapted from a 1934 Kaufman and Hart play, it traces three creative buddies back in time, beginning when they are middle-aged, accomplished and miserable, and ending when they're young and brimming with hope.
Aside from its simplistic, spurious premise -- I know few 20-year-olds as breathlessly ecstatic as the characters here and few successful 40-year-olds as mired in despair -- the musical's text, penned by George Furth, feels quaint. But scenic designer Derek McLane and costume designer David C. Woolard have fun with the dated, kitschy elements, fashioning day-glo sets and groovy retro duds for the tortured, solipsistic characters to knock around in.
More weight is provided by another superb group of actors. Michael Hayden captures the ambition and vague guilt of the golden-boy protagonist, Franklin, a composer whose idiosyncratic sophistication seems to mirror Sondheim's own. As his close pal and collaborator, Charley, the immensely likable Raul Esparza evokes the brisk joy of idealism and the pain of disillusionment. And as Mary, the writer who adores both men but pines for Franklin, Miriam Shor is piquant and heartbreaking.
But the real stars of this production are Sondheim's songs, which include a few of his most telling reflections on the demands of love and art. In Good Thing Going, Franklin and Charley ponder a long-term relationship that has dissolved: ''You take for granted some love will wear away/We took for granted a lot/But still I say/It could have kept on growing/Instead of just kept on.''
Wisdom like that may be enhanced by a sharp mind, but it surely takes root in a softer, warmer place.
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