When I saw Passion in 1994 with Eric Besner (a fellow law student at the time -- and a Sondheim scholar: here's his article for The Sondheim Review on the revisions to Passion during the previews), I was blown away. (I actually liked it better in the raw state before Sondheim's changes -- but that might just be the result of how it affected me emotionally at the time.)
Fosca is the ultimate producer of Magical Thinking Romance Theater. That's my term for the sort of imaginary romantic relationship where one person doesn't know the relationship even exists. I wish I could find it now, but I saw a T-shirt in law school that said, in effect,
Before he can wine and dine you,
Before he can fall in love with you,
Before he can propose marriage,
Before he can father your babies...
He has to call you!
Leap-frogging over inconvenient truths, assuming that there's more than casual friendship in someone's smile, envisioning a rosy future when the other person has other plans -- that's all evidence of staging a Magical Thinking Romance Theater production.
I used to be a lot more active in Magical Thinking Romance Theater myself, a long time ago, so I know the signs. But by the time I saw Passion, I lived less in my head. Seeing Fosca -- this plain, awkward woman in mid-19th century Italy who imagines herself madly in love with a gorgeous army officer -- wear her heart so blatantly on her sleeve gave me a frisson of recognition.
Then she sings about why she reads:
I do not read to search for truth
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.
I read to live. In other people's lives.
I read about the joys, the world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.
I read to fly, to skim -
I do not read to swim.
But there's one aspect of reading that Fosca didn't touch on: the cathartic read. Some of my favorite comfort reads are ones that make me cry.
I don't think that's inconsistent with Fosca's reading style. We want relief from our own unhappiness, and we can get that both from reading about other people's happiness, but also from discharging a little of our own pain while reading about their fear of loss.
Of course, this only works for me if there's a happy ending. I don't want to close a book and still feel bad about the characters. It also doesn't work for me if the book is emotionally uninvolving, perhaps because the protagonists are annoying or the prose doesn't prompt that cathartic response. I would imagine that this is very reader-specific. The books that reliably make me cry might well leave other people dry-eyed, and vice-versa.
Plus, I like to cry. I expect a lot of people don't enjoy it as much, rather in the way that some people don't enjoy being scared on roller-coasters.
Just more proof that what we read, why we read it and why we praise it, can be so personal.