ASSASSINS - Classic Stage Company
This review was composed to be translated for Blickpunkt Musical, the German magazine on international musical theatre.
Never before has a production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s’ ASSASSINS 'been more timely and relevant to an American audience than it was in a limited run at Classic Stage Company, (CSC) an Off-Broadway venue in lower Manhattan. And under the razor sharp direction of CSC’s artistic director John Doyle, never has Weidman’s book emerged as trenchant and powerful until this galvanizing production. (Weidman also wrote the book for Sondheim’s other politically-themed musical “Pacific Overtures”.)
ASSASSINS, a revue set to song about both the successful and unsuccessful assassins of American presidents, has a somewhat indirect route to its most articulate presentation at CSC. Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1990 to tepid revues, director Sam Mendes tackled the politically provocative musical with more success at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992. An autumn 2001 New York revival was scuttled being deemed to sensitive topically after the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings. Director Joe Mantello’s direction for the Roundabout in 2004 won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, securing “Assassins”‘ position in the popular Sondheim canon. London’s Menier Chocolate Factory production in 2014 infused the musical with eerie spectacle by setting it in a decaying carnival midway. The CSC dissects “Assassins” with autopsical scalpel, magnifying Weidman’s trenchant, subversive book to a previously unrealized dramatic scale.
The leader of the pack of assassins (9 in total, 4 successful) is, naturally, the first in American history, President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (an amazing Steven Pasquale in his best performance yet), who proclaims, providing context for his fellow assassin’s missions, “Every now and then the country goes a little crazy” Timely, indeed. The assassins bond in the common anthem, “Everybody’s Got a Right to Be Happy”. In jaunty, vaudeville-style rhythms they refrain, “Everybody’s got a right to their dream.” Their American dream is a little crazy that’s all, but Weidman's point is clear: in their minds it’s still an American dream.
The large thrust stage is painted in an American flag, folk-art style. The balcony backdrop houses a 3 piece band, which is augmented by members of the ensemble who play mostly banjo and guitar. Mounted on the balcony is a large Presidential seal . As each assassin, over the course of the 1:45 show, takes their turn with a handgun, their presidential target appearing within the seal.
Booth acts as emcee, cajoling his other assassins, egging them on, exploiting their weaknesses, and, egotistically comparing his large place in history to their amateur attempts, even berating lesser known successful assassins of Presidents Garfield and McKinley. Shadowing him through the play is a balladeer (Ethan Slater), an all-American, guitar plucking Everyman, costumed in everyday overalls (much like mechanics or assembly-line workers wear, also worn by the musician/ensemble players). The balladder dispassionately tells each assassin's story.
The cast is uniformly superior. Weidman finds comic relief in pairing the two feckless would-be assassins of President Gerald Ford, Sarah Jane Moore (Broadway veteran Judy Kuhn of impeccable timing) and Squeaky Fromme (newcomer Tavi Gevinson). Weidman’s duo of Moore, the conservative, middle-aged suburban divorce and mother with Squeaky, a teenage, hippie lover of mass murderer Charles Manson, reveals with blackest humor the continuing divisions in American demographics and culture.
Sondheim’s score celebrates All-American musical idioms. “Another National Anthem '' has the parade-stepping cadence of John Phillip Souza march, while the balladder’s odes are largely bluegrass and Appalachian folk-based. Sondheim’s sardonic composition is at its best, however, in the duet of Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr with Squeaky Fromme. Obsessed with young actress Jodi Foster, and she with Manson, Hinckely’’s ode “I Would Do Anything for Your Love” has all the saccharine melody of 1970’s Top 10 love songs of the immensely popular duo The Carpenters.
Distinctively, of all Sondheim’s musicals, ASSASSINS hits its dramatic peak not in music or song, but in book. In a harrowing scene, Lee Harvey Oswald appears (already an innocent from the cast, no spoiler here), greeted by John Wilkes Booth, on the sixth floor of the Texas Book School Depository from whence Oswald shot President Kennedy. In perhaps the best single scene of extended dialogue in any musical, Wilkes seduces a weak, ambivalent Oswald to take his place in history, complementing Wilkes’ own assassination of Lincoln a century before and acknowledging, too, his fellow band of lesser assassins. The Zapruder film that documents the bullet striking Kennedy plays in the target area of the Presidential seal. Pasquale’s performance is as volcanic as Weidman’s writing. As many times as I’ve seen the play, its import has never before been as stunning.
Perhaps the most elegiac song in all of Sondheim’s cannon (and there are many) comes next: “Something Just Broke” which recalls, using just a handful of notes, the minute details of what Americans were doing the moment on November 22, 1963 when they heard JFK was dead: hanging out the laundry, picking the kids up from school, shopping for dinner. The ode is heart-wrenching for those that remember. (I was in a 6th grade geography class in a Roman Catholic grammar school in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Sister Mary Christina was the teacher.).
But the finale of ASSASSINS is really the punch-to-the-gut. In an angry, forceful reprise of “Everybody’s Got a Right to be Happy”, the ensemble turns to the Presidential seal on which is projected the scene of hundreds of insurrectionists storming the US Capital on January 6, 2021. “Everybody’s got a right to their dream"; it’s the American way.