“Assassins,” the 30-year-old musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman about nine of the 13 people who have tried to kill an American president, is certainly clever; when is Sondheim not clever? The historical figures, largely obscure, remain fascinating. The new revival at Classic Stage Company features a pitch-perfect cast overflowing with talented, hip New York stage actors. But “Assassins” is also unsettling; more unsettling than entertaining; unsettling enough to make me wonder: At a time when the Republican Party is full of would-be assassins and their elected enablers, is this the moment for a show that turns these past national traumas into a clever pastiche musical revue?
The deliberately jarring disconnect between the music and the message begins with the first musical number, “Everybody’s Got The Right,” a jaunty vaudevillian tune. The set, designed by director John Doyle, is steeped in Americana — the floor is painted with the American flag, beneath the Presidential seal; the band wear jumpsuits (prison garb?) of all-red, all-white, or all-blue. A carnival barker called the Proprietor (Eddie Cooper) drums up business for a shooting gallery:
“Hey, pal, feelin blue?/Don’t know what to do?/I mean you/Yeah. C’mere and kill a president.”
He gives the first gun to Leon Czolgosz (Brandon Uranowitz), who aims it at the Presidential seal, which suddenly changes to a portrait of President William McKinley, framed like a target, which Czolgosz shoots at. The steelworker and anarchist killed McKinley in 1901, the third of the four successful Presidential assassination attempts in American history.
The Proprietor offers a gun and appropriate lyrics one by one to John Hinckley Jr. (Adam Chanler-Berat) who aims and misses the target of Ronald Reagan; Charles Guiteau (Will Swenson) who aims and hits the target of James Garfield, who was killed in 1881; then four failed assassins: Giuseppe Zangara (an impressively unrecognizable Wesley Taylor) who shot at Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, missing him but killing the mayor of Chicago; Samuel Byck (Andy Grotelueschen, in a soiled Santa suit) who attempted to hijack a plane in 1974 and crash it into the White House in the hopes of killing Richard Nixon; Lynette Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Tavi Gevinson and Judy Kuhn), who made separate attempts, three weeks apart, to kill Gerald Ford in 1975.
The song ends with John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale, elegantly dressed in black) joining the group, who view him in awe, and then echoing and elaborating on the Proprietor’s refrain:
Everybody’s got a right to be happy
The entire group then sings
Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine…
Everybody’s got the right to their dreams..
It is the first of many, many scenes in which the assassins gather together – sometimes in pairs, once as a barbershop quartet, often as a group chorus – which of course never did (or could) happen in real life. That first song establishes what strikes me as one of the two main themes of the musical, which is reinforced in more detailed portraits of the individuals in scenes and songs to follow: The country made them believe in the American Dream, so much so that they felt it was promised to them, so that when their lives were instead marked with failure and disappointment – the downside of the American Dream — they looked for someone to blame. And they blamed the President, in large part because he is a celebrity…and because killing him would make them celebrities too. That’s what they wanted because – second theme – celebrity is a dominant value in American culture.
The creative team makes selective use of the historical record to make their case. There is a monologue (not a song) in “Assassins” of Samuel Byk in a Santa Suit making a tape to Leonard Bernstein, telling him he was going to assassinate Nixon, while also expressing his admiration for the composer because of his talent and his resentment of him because he is rich and famous and ignoring him.
Samuel Byk really did wear a Santa suit once at a protest, and he reportedly resented Nixon because the Small Business Administration denied him a loan. He also sent tapes to people he admired, including Leonard Bernstein. Whether a scene played out in real life as it does on stage feels very unlikely.
Indeed, how likely would it be for a professional historian to blame American culture, as Weidman and Sondheim in effect do, for the specific actions of nine such disparate, deranged individuals that occurred over the course of more than a century?
Historical accuracy, of course, is not the creative team’s stock in trade. They are expected to create art, and many over the years have said that “Assassins” meets that expectation, including Sondheim himself, explicitly; of all the musicals he’s written, this one, he’s said, “comes closest to my expectations for it.”
Musically, the show’s songs are each in a different musical style, reflecting either the era in which the character lived, or their character, or both.
The Ballad of Booth, sung by a guitar player identified only as the Balladeer (Ethan Slater), sounds like a storytelling ballad that Stephen Foster might have written, and is interspersed with a serious scene of Booth on the lam, asking an accomplice to help him set the record straight.
Let them curse me to Hell
Leave it to history to tell
What I did, I did well
And I did it for my country
But that’s not how history records his action, as the balladeer makes clear:
They say it wasn’t Lincoln, John
You’d merely had
A slew of bad reviews
.”Unworthy of Your Love,” an imagined duet between John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme, could have been written by the 1970s duo, The Carpenters. “I am nothing/You are wind and water and sky, Jodie,” Hinckley sings to Jodie Foster.
“I am nothing/You are wind and devil and God, Charlie,” Fromme sings to Charlie Manson. It’s hard not to see this as a wicked parody.
I understand why Sondheim has been praised for what he does musically and lyrically in “Assassins.” I do find it curious, though, and perhaps revealing, that there is no list of the songs in the CSC program, but there is a timeline of trivia about assassinations. It says something as well that the program also includes a paragraph explaining that all the guns used in the play are “replicas that were provided, checked, and rendered inoperable by a weapon’s specialist for the safety of our artists and audiences. All gunshot sound effects are pre-recorded.” (Given this unspoken allusion to the recent Alec Baldwin fatal shooting accident with a prop gun, another argument why this might not be the right moment for this show.)
Near the end of “Assassins,” Ethan Slater returns, not as the Balladeer, but as Lee Harvey Oswald. All the other assassins, led by Booth, gather by his side and methodically convince him to kill Kennedy (Czolgosz: “You’re going to bring us back.” Hinckley: “And make us possible.” Guiteau: “We’re in your debt, old boy.” Byck: “This Bud’s for you babe.”) Oswald picks up the gun, which was folded in an American flag, and pulls the trigger, accompanied by a shockingly loud (albeit pre-recorded) gun shot blast. The production shows actual footage of Jackie Kennedy scrambling in the backseat of that limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963. As I watched all this unfold, it wasn’t Sondheim’s score I was thinking about.
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Classic Stage Company through January 29, 2022
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Jane Cox and Tess James, sound design byMatt StineandSam Kusnetz, projection design by Steve Channon, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe, music supervisor/orchestrations, Greg Jarrett
Cast: Adam Chanler-Berat as John Hinckley, Jr; Eddie Cooper as The Proprietor; Tavi Gevinson as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme; Andy Grotelueschen as Samuel Byck; Judy Kuhn as Sara Jane Moore; Steven Pasqualeas John Wilkes Booth; Ethan Slater (Lee Harvey Oswald and The Balladeer; Will Swenson as Charles Guiteau; Wesley Taylor as Giuseppe Zangara; Brandon Uranowitz as Leon Czolgosz; Brad Giovanine, Bianca Horn, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, Katrina Yaukey/ Understudies: Sam Bolen, Lee Harrington, and Ben Magnuson.
All photos by Julieta Cervantes