How the Success of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Makes a Misunderstood Sondheim Masterpiece Relevant Again

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When Stephen Sondheim’s Passion opened in 1994, audiences despised one of its leading characters: Fosca, a mentally ill woman whose instability and lack of physical beauty have condemned her to a life of solitude in the army camp her cousin commands. The show revolves around the love triangle established between Fosca; Giorgio, the young soldier that she’s obsessively in love with; and Clara, the married woman he left behind in Milan and exchanges letters with regularly.

Fosca is prone to fits of yelling, and her multiple meltdowns throughout the show were met with applause. One person reportedly yelled, “Die, Fosca! Die!” from the balcony during a performance. Sondheim responded to the hostility by suggesting in Look, I Made a Hat, his book of annotated lyrics, that these people “may have identified with Giorgio and Fosca all too readily and uncomfortably.”

When I watched the Zoetic Stage production of Passion in Miami last month, the show proved to be as abrasive as ever — characters are depicted as rash and manipulative, and the show is less about love than the outlandish idea of it — but the audience sat in rapt silence until the closing applause. It was a pleasant surprise that no one accused Fosca of being “crazy” during or after the performance. This inspired a question: why do audiences of the past and audiences of the present receive this tragic woman differently?

“Unhappiness can be seductive.” “You pitied me.” “How quickly pity leads to love.”

These words, sung between the two lovers Giorgio and Clara at the opening of the show, seem innocuous at first, but neatly state the theme of the story that ensues. Fosca, Giorgio, and Clara are all flawed individuals, each revealing their thoughts and feelings to the others with a forwardness many might find off-putting. They speak of disgust, of pity, of beauty, of love, of all things that reveal the folly of mankind, and often act foolishly in the heat of the moment. As Sondheim says, this strikes audiences as ridiculous.

Witnessing Passion in 2016, one work of art kept popping into my head: The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The Golden Globe-winning musical comedy series rang in my ear as Passion unfolded before me, unexpectedly deepening my understanding of Fosca.

The series mirrors Passion in a fascinating way, both thematically and narratively. Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), too, is a complex mentally ill character whose unhappiness in life has her moving across the country to be with the man she’s hopelessly, desperately in love with — who is, to her displeasure, already committed to a beautiful woman. She constantly manipulates her love interest, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), as well as those around him, in order to grow closer to him and make him love her.

But Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s co-creator as well as its star, isn’t getting, “Die, Rebecca! Die!” as a primary response. On a surface level, it’s difficult to understand why, considering the abundant similarities between the two works.

Passion makes no attempt at hiding the deplorability of its characters, particularly Fosca, but neither does Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In an interview with the Vulture TV Podcast, Bloom said, “This is a show about someone who’s made a bad decision, and is in many ways a bubbly antihero. We’re taking happy tropes of songs and exploring a darker side to them.” For all the show’s pep and jokiness, much of Rebecca’s behavior — and, by extension, that of her enabling confidant Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), who edges her and Josh closer together in much the same way as Fosca’s doctor does with Giorgio in her time of need — should be considered reprehensible.

Just as Fosca forces herself into Giorgio’s life by potentially feigning or overdramatizing her illness and luring him into situations that will bring her close to him, Rebecca Bunch exploits her loneliness and newcomer status to force herself into Josh’s friend group. Unlike Fosca, Rebecca is in denial about her circumstances, her behavior, and her love for Josh (“I didn’t move here for Josh, I just needed a change”). She lives under the pretense that she is a good person (as explored in the song “I’m a Good Person”), even though she knows she’s making unsavory decisions. Fosca, meanwhile, is honest in her intentions and thoroughly aware of her relentless feelings for Giorgio: “Loving you is not a choice; it’s who I am.”

The similarities between the stories now even extend to the “other woman,” with Josh’s girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) presented in a similar light to Clara in the most recent episode. Where Bloom previously faltered was in not treating Valencia with consistency, making her a shallow mean girl and saddling her with amusing solo tunes (“I’m So Good at Yoga” and “Women Gotta Stick Together”) that offered no insight into her character. It was only in this week’s episode, “Josh Is Going to Hawaii!” that Valencia’s willingness to understand Josh’s feelings and work at their relationship became visible, accompanied by Rebecca’s realization that she is “the villain in [her] own story.”

In the same way, the shallow and beautiful Clara mostly appears as simply a rival to the maligned Fosca. While still the most underdeveloped character in the show — confined to reading and singing pain-stricken love letters, to the point that the New York Times had to praise a recent revival actress for lending the character dimension and texture — Clara is offered the benefit of some complexity, with “Farewell Letter” deepening her characterization.

The parallels between these two works lead one to wonder if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has received more love from audiences and critics alike than Passion did upon its debut because of its presentation as a musical comedy, as opposed to the sorrowful romantic journey that Sondheim offers. Rebecca’s openness about her mental instability, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s pointed but never mean-spirited skewering of it, instantly offer more accessibility than Fosca’s depiction as a tortured soul. Neither woman is ever reduced to simply being “crazy” in either work (to quote Rebecca in her theme song: “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that”), but happiness – along with a healthy dose of self-deprecation (“You Stupid Bitch”) – is often easier to digest than operatic sadness.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the newest additions to a growing list of recent female-created works billed as comedy and featuring nuanced portrayals of deeply flawed women, Broad City and Transparent among them. You’re the Worst, a series that seemed in its first season to be an innocuous romantic comedy about two awful people falling for each other, dedicated its second season to looking at the way Gretchen Cutler’s clinical depression impacts her relationship.

Diablo Cody helped lay the groundwork for these TV portrayals in her films, notably Young Adult, in which protagonist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) also finds herself attempting to seduce a former flame, to disastrous effect. Upon its release, Slate’s David Haglund published a piece titled “The Anti-Hero of Young Adult Isn’t ‘Unlikable,’ She’s Mentally Ill,” in which he suggests, “There are plenty of such reasons to dislike Mavis Gary as she’s portrayed by Charlize Theron. What’s daring about Young Adult is that it asks you to care about her anyway.”

Many creators, including Bloom, are gently nudging audiences towards accepting characters who are more than just representatives of a minority formerly unseen on television. Women, people of color, queer people, people with a wide variety of mental illnesses are getting their due — and, crucially, people who identify as part of more than one of these groups — are being represented on television as characters go far beyond the stereotypes or jokes they’ve been limited to for decades. With the “Golden Age” of Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano out of the way, antiheroines like Rebecca Bunch, Gretchen Cutler, and Mavis Gary are able to shine in their own important, and exciting, way – a way that Fosca couldn’t when she was introduced over 20 years ago.

Characters like these allow us to more readily see women as complex, rather than as either shrews or saints; they also help us retroactively recognize works that were ahead of their time. Bloom and her peers provide a window for us to appreciate a story as emotionally honest and character-driven as Sondheim’s Passion as fully as its creator intended.