An Interview with Passion’s writer James Lapine

Music Spitballing

It is our understanding that in your first projects with Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) you brought the projects to him, but is it true that Mr. Sondheim brought Passion to you? Did that change the way you went about writing it?
JL: “Brought” is the wrong verb…We spit-balled about ideas working together. And so maybe I was the catalyst for the first two and he was the catalyst for the third. Steve has done a few shows that he generated himself, and this was one of them because he loved the movie so much and so he showed me the movie. But I wouldn’t say I brought anything to him. It was just a matter of sitting together and finding ideas that appealed to both of us.

Since you had both the film and the novel as source material, which had more influence?

I was actually not really sold on the movie, but when I started reading the book, then I was interested and understood what I could do with it as a book writer. The book actually was out of print when we started. I believe I tracked down a translation of the book. It was one of those classic late nineteenth century novels that were done as serials. If I’m not mistaken, he [Iginio Tarchetti] died before he actually finished writing it. Somebody else finished it. They’re fun to read because they’re installments essentially.

You and Mr. Sondheim had originally discussed developing Passion as half of a two-part evening. What was that other project and why did you ultimately decide to let it go?

It was a book I had read called Muscle by Sam Fussell. Sam was a very well-educated, bright fellow who, by circumstance, became a competitive bodybuilder. I just thought it was an interesting contrast between the woman who is shrinking to nothing and the guy who is enlarging to bizarre proportions. And one being contemporary and one being period. I just thought they were interesting ideas as a first and second act. Steve wrote an opening number for Muscle but, by his own admission, contemporary music is not his thing. So I was just working on Passion anyway and it sort of enlarged in and of itself to a full evening.

How do you and Mr. Sondheim decide what is book and what is song? And have you ever disagreed?

Generally, I write the book or begin most of the book before he begins the music. So one looks at the book and one decides what should be musicalized. We never had a fight. We disagree sometimes. Sorry, no dish there. It’s just basically sitting down together and analyzing or figuring it out. It is a musical and people are coming to hear singing, so in my opinion the musical side wins out. It’s interesting in this case because I had actually thought about Passion as a sung-through musical like it is in opera. It is very operatic obviously, with the story. When we did our first workshop of it there was a lot more music, and Steve was quite impassioned by the fact that there was too much music. So we actually reinstated more book and cut music. His point was that you get tired of listening to music and what’s nice about having the book there, is that it lets the ear rest and tells the story in a different way. And the song itself will take on a more emotional and more atmospheric contribution to the evening. So that was kind of a curious discovery about it. It’s a show that doesn’t really—when we did it on Broadway anyway—allow for applause, which was really unusual. None of the numbers have big buttons, they just bleed in from one scene into the number. So it has a kind of wonderful form about it.

How do you feel about having work that you originated and directed, such as Passion, being helmed by another creative mind?

I love it, actually. I feel very proud that we created a work that speaks to other people and other people want to do it. They bring their own ideas and own interpretation to the project. So I generally have no objection to it. In fact I’m sort of flattered by it. I don’t always love what they do with it, but I think I can’t be very objective in that regard. I’ve kind of let it go. It was a little more difficult for me to let go earlier in my career, but now I really don’t have much interest in going back to anything. I’d rather move forward and write new stuff as I get older rather than revisit old things, so I’m happy other people are revisiting them.