Hail to the Chief
Assassins seethes through the mind like an unsettling wind, hurling aside platitude and raising a host of tormenting questions. This brilliant musical by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim is exactly the kind of project local companies should be taking on -- and kudos to Next Stage for doing so.
Sondheim is the composer who reimagined the American musical, the web of text, movement and song that had previously been spun almost purely for entertainment. He made the form his own and used it to explore loneliness, murder, greed and the role of art in life -- in brief, the human condition. Assassins opened on Broadway in 1991, during the uneasy climate of the first Gulf War, to lukewarm reviews. A Broadway run scheduled for 2001 was canceled because of 9/11. When Assassins was finally revived last year, there was a lot of talk about whether its evocation of a particularly chaotic strain of violence in the American psyche was appropriate. But violence and evil have always been the province of art; they seem out of place in a musical only because we're used to the vapidity and commercialism of most musical theater.
Assassins tells the story of nine people who either assassinated or attempted to assassinate a president -- from John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln and spiritual father to the act in America, to the disheveled Sara Jane Moore, who pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1975. The action begins as a carnival barker paces a gaudy, flag-draped stage with an electric chair at one side and a noose on the other, inviting onlookers to "Come on and shoot a president" and assuring them that "Everybody's got the right to their dreams."
The assassins interact with each other across the shoals of time, and their biographies are revealed in dialogue and song. What an odd lot they are! Booth was avenging the defeat of the southern states. Leon Czolgosz, who shot William McKinley in 1901, was a penniless worker who revered Emma Goldman and dreamed of a just and equal world. Then there was Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield, who was apparently angered at not being named ambassador to France; Giuseppe Zangara, whose motivation for shooting at Franklin D. Roosevelt (he missed, but killed the mayor of Chicago) stemmed from the pain of an implacable stomachache; and the perennially Santa-suited Sam Byck. Byck came up with a scheme to fly an airplane into the White House and incinerate Richard Nixon. Attempting to carry it out, he killed two people and wounded a third. Add Manson devotee Squeaky Fromme, Moore, would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley and the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald to the roster, and you've got the lot.
Assassins balances between hilarity and horror without ever losing its footing. The scenes between Fromme and Moore -- with Fromme worshipfully quoting Charlie Manson's loathsome, apocalyptic sayings as Moore bumbles about the stage and at one point pulls a high-heeled shoe from her purse while reaching for her gun -- illustrate the dynamic perfectly. There's irony at every level. The tenderest, most beautiful piece of music in the show is "Unworthy of Your Love," sung as a duet by Fromme and John Hinckley. She's addressing Manson, and he Jodie Foster.
There are moments that leave you simply open-mouthed: the entire cast pointing its guns at the audience; Squeaky Fromme deliberately cutting a bloody cross onto her forehead; Guiteau's singing and dancing mental breakdown on the way to the gallows: "I am going to the Lordy." And the mournful requiem "Something Just Broke" sung by a group of ordinary men and women after Kennedy's assassination.
I don't know how much of the dialogue is taken from the record and how much is invented, but the play is revelatory, chilling and full of surprises.
Assassins never attempts to excuse or romanticize its protagonists, but it does provide fragments of understanding and arouse fleeting moments of pity.
Lunacy. Incompetence. Stomachache. Social justice. The belief that a killing is God's will. The loneliness of the immigrant. The loneliness of the outcast in his own country. It's almost impossible to come up with a thread connecting the motivations of these killers, though Assassins does stress the fact that some simply craved human warmth and attention (Booth even quotes the line "Attention must be paid" from Death of a Salesman), and some were motivated by a thirst for fame -- not mere headlines, but the fame that comes with having altered history.
The musical invokes two Americas: the America of baseball games and green meadows, small towns and patriotic songs, and a violent, chaotic country of huge inequalities and unsustainable fantasies, an America that worships force, iconizes the gun and nurtures the hallucinatory dreams of madmen.
Next Stage took a huge risk in staging a full-fledged musical of this complexity in a small space with limited resources, but Gene Kato's production works. It includes some standout performances: Gregg Adams as a sad-souled Leon Czolgosz, Brian Hutchinson as a handsome Booth and Todd Coulter kicking and singing his way across the stage as Charles Guiteau. Daniel Langhoff is both a deceptively ordinary country kid and a creepy Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jenny Hecht is grimly funny as Squeaky Fromme. There are also fine performances from David Kincannon, Rich Hicks, Tyler Collins and Jasper Ryckman. Jessica Clare would have been more effective if she'd given her Sara Jane Moore some moments of contrast and been less shrill overall. The production values are solid, the four-person band skilled, and the overall effect simultaneously devastating and exhilarating.
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