TELL THE STORY: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s "Assassins"' - CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY
(This article was written for the German magazine BLICKPUNKT MUSICAL for whiich Mr. Dwyer is US reviewer.)
When the pandemic shut down theater in New York in March 2020, one of the most anticipated musicals of the season was a revival (in rehearsal, actually) of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. The 1990 musical about the delusional dreams of assassins of US Presidents is undeniably Sondheim’s most political, so it was opportune for CSC to program it during the Presidential election. But with the insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the revival, which will be staged when theaters re-open, is more relevant than ever. To both sustain interest in the show and fundraise, CSC artistic director and ”Assassins” director John Doyle, who staged streamlined actor-musician versions of both Sondheim’s “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway, produced a unique fundraising event that streamed in the US in April, but it transacted more like a thoroughly engaging documentary about reviving an audacious stage musical whose time has finally come.
The January 6 attack is brought front and center to “Assassins" by no less than former Secretary of State and Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, a huge theatre fan, who introduces Doyle’s documentary. Says Clinton, “(Theater) holds a mirror up to our society…(before January 6 this play) might have felt like distant history… but our grief and outrage remind us that fanatical ideas and outright lies can lead to real, even deadly harm.”. “‘Assassins' dares audiences to assess our national myth through the eyes of villains instead of our heroes…. (by dramatizing) an infamous fraternity of disillusioned Americans (who) have committed horrifying acts of violence in pursuit of an illusive prize”.
Social and political context has affected productions of “Assassins” since its beginning. The 1990 original at Playwrights Horizon was labeled unpatriotic: its launch coincided with the Gulf War, it got negative to mixed reviews, audiences left during performances and it closed after just 73 performances. A revival planned for 2000 was aborted after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The production that got staged in 2004 on Broadway at The Roundabout, directed by Joe Mantello, went on to win five Tonys, including Best Musical Revival. .
Indeed, besides “humanizing” Presidential assassins, what’s always been most controversial about “Assassins” is how Weidman’s book and Sondeheim’s lyrics posit that assassins, too, like everybody else, are in pursuit of the American dream, however fanatical or delusional.
The musical theme which threads through “Assassins” - and which Doyle uses to frame “Tell the Story” is “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy” - “everybody’s got a right to their dream”. The rub, observes Sondheim, in a revelatory conversation with Weidman, is that "people confuse the right to happiness with the right to the pursuit of happiness."
Appearing in the documentary, besides Sondheim and Weidman, are members of the CSC revival and members of the 1990 and 2004 productions. Profiled in “Assassins” are nine assassins or would-be assassins, from the forgotten like Giuseppe Zangara who tried to kill then President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and those who changed world history - John Wikes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln at the theatre in Washington and Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy in the motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Booth, being the most famous, emerges as the leader of the group. His story and those of others are linked together by a balladeer, an emcee of sorts, who interconnects among the assassins, sometimes introducing them in fictional meetings. The most imaginative and harrowing scene in Weidman’s incisive book (sometimes acidic depending on directorial treatment) is John Wilkes Booth visiting Lee Harvey Oswald the moments before Oswald fires his rifle from the Texas School Book depository.
Doyle deftly intercuts the recollections of actors in past productions with his new cast. Three Broadway leading men - Victor Garber, Michael Cervsarius and Steven Pasquale - exchange what it’s like to play Booth from 1990 to 2020, a period of 30 years in which the US has experienced so much change. Under any circumstances comments Cerveris, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Booth, “Assassins'' "is not an easy play to navigate.”
As challenging as the dramatic material is in “Assassins'', so, too, is Sondeim’s score. Judy Kuhn, who plays Sarah Jane Moore, the middle-aged accountant who tried unsuccessfully to shoot President Gerald Ford in San Francisco CA in 1975, joins Debra Monk and Becky Ann Baker, from the 1990 and 2004 versions, to describe the vocal challenge of the “Gun Song”, with its elusive rhythms. Says Kuhn, “The first time I did (the song) cleanly in a music rehearsal I got applause.”
In contrast to Doyle’s previous Sondheim revivals, actors will not be playing their own instruments. Musical supervisor Greg Jarrett is re-orchestrating Sondheim’s score, giving it a more primitive all-American sound, relying on fiddle and banjo, instruments key to the uniquely American forms of bluegrass and folk. The score satirizes pop music, too. Actor Adam Brian Chanler-Berat (“Normal Heart” original cast), who plays John Hinckley, whose obsession with actress Jody Foster led him in to shoot Ronald Reagan, previews his number “Unworthy of Your Love”: it has all the soft, sing-song rhythms and saccharine melody that characterizes The Carpenters’ Top-10 hits in the 1970s.
I’ve seen two productions of “Assassins”: among Sondheim’s less popular musicals it’s my favorite. The 2004 Roundabout production was unforgettable for the video projection of the graphic Zapruder film on the T-shirt of Lee Harvey Oswald who was played by Neil Patrick Harris, fresh from his juvenile years as TV’s Doogie Howser, M. D. More riveting, though, was London’s 2014 Menier Chocolate Factory’s production which converted an alley stage into a decrepit carnival midway. “Tell the Story” doesn't acknowledge the elegiac number “Something Just Broke” which Sondheimn added to the first London production in 1992: it recalls for every American who was alive in November 1963 the moment they learned JFK was shot. It’s devastating.
At the core of “Assassins” is the premise of the American Dream, which goes horribly astray every once in a while. It will be fascinating to see how audiences react to CSC’s upcoming “Assassins”. After what the nation has been through, there is no more denying the underbelly of America, Americans had the luxury of ignoring before.