“I’m so happy” are the first words Marin Mazzie sang in the opening scene of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion. Although it unfolded nearly 25 years ago, that unforgettable scene and those words have suffused me with a palpable sadness since last week, when ovarian cancer killed Mazzie following a long and public siege. She was 57.
Of Passion, I wrote in Variety, “Perhaps to make up for the fact that she has to spend her first 10 minutes onstage nude, Mazzie is the biggest beneficiary of Jane Greenwood’s gorgeous costume designs: Clara appears in one stunning period gown after another, each showing off a porcelain radiance (which accurately describes Mazzie’s singing, as well) to lovelier effect than the last.”
The bravery required of the actress playing Clara – literally “light,” in contrast to Fosca, the “shadow” who ultimately wins the devotion of Clara’s lover – was impossible to ignore. Mazzie played and sang rapture with such absolute honesty it was easy to fall in love with her, as so many of us did.
In Passion she promised happiness and delivered bliss, and that became the hallmark of her superb career: an irresistible mix of gorgeous, rangy soprano, a seemingly effortless command of comedy as well as drama, and the willingness to put herself out there with utter abandon, as she would later do as tempestuous Lilli Vanessi in the smashing 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate, on the heels of her heartbreaking performance as Mother, in Ragtime.
Mazzie was more than a recitation of her breakout performances. Some brilliant actors provoke jealousy in their colleagues, others admiration, not only for their skill but for their generosity of spirit. Mazzie fell in the latter group, and those qualities only grew after she revealed her illness while continuing to work, sometimes with her husband Jason Danieley, as often as she was able to. Those appearances included performances at the club Feinstein’s/54 Below and what would be her last stage work, in a non-singing role as a society arts patroness last January in Terrence McNally’s Fire and Air.
“All this happiness,” Clara sings in her lover’s embrace. Mazzie’s gift to a generation of theatergoers and colleagues alike was happiness in its purest state. It may not temper our grief at her passing, but neither does it diminish her enduring light.