When Yale Rep Director James Bundy scheduled the musical Assassins last spring, he had no idea who the presidential nominees would be or who would win the election. Still, he felt the show would be relevant and that it would resonate with the audience, regardless of the outcome.
The Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical that opens at the Yale Rep on Friday, March 17 is staged as a revue; the characters are the men and women who made successful and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of U.S. presidents.
“I was particularly drawn to it when we were planning this season because of the tenor of national politics, which are driven in part by the kind of anger and resentment, as well as the pursuit of fame and celebrity, that is so prevalent in our contemporary political culture,” Bundy says.
The show itself was written in the late 1980s and was based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., an aspiring writer of musicals. Sondheim has says he read Gilbert’s script of a show about presidential assassins as a panelist for the Musical Theater Lab. Later, he asked and gained permission to use the basic idea, though in a very different form. The original script had a typical plot about a fictional character.
The musical that Sondheim and Weidman developed is more of a revue, set in a carnival arcade shooting gallery where the different assassins interact despite wide variations in their historical time period. They added three non-historical characters: the Proprietor who owns the shooting gallery and provides the guns, the Balladeer who serves as the narrator, and Billy, the son of Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Moore did have a son, but the name has been changed.
The show brings together the well-known assassins—Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth—with those who have been lost to history such as Charles Guiteau (President Garfield’s assassin) as well as others who made attempts on the lives of presidents, and in one case, a president-elect.
In explaining his reasons for doing the show, Bundy says, “our job as artists is to notice what is going on around us.”
He describes Assassins as a “classic” and says that as such “it connects vividly to the preoccupations of any period. Although there are ways in which the specifics of the show are fixed in time, and the history is unknown to some of us, the fixations of the characters are utterly current.”
Bundy says the Yale production includes a 13-piece orchestra playing the original Broadway orchestrations.
He says the production is about the American Dream and invites “a theatrical interpretation that combines our national iconography with originality and contemporary perspective.” These include digital designs with contemporary and folk art.
Whether it be Oswald, Booth, or Byck (who made an attempt on President Richard Nixon), Bundy says the show points to the fact that “political violence has been part of American culture for more than 150 years—as have the strains of entitlement, misguided rage, and gun culture that fueled the phenomenon.”
The press release on the show says Assassins is about nine people who “united in disillusionment and alienation, take what they believe is their best—and only—shot at the American Dream.”
Bundy agrees with Sondheim, who has often stated that he viewed Assassins as his most “perfect” musical. In an interview with the Globe (London) in 2014, Sondheim says “John Weidman [the librettist] and I knew what we wanted to do, and we did it.” He added it that it fulfilled his expectations.
Explaining what he finds so intriguing and perfect about the show, Bundy says, “The creators were able to write in different genres and create a prismatic view of our nation’s history and character. In less than two hours, they raise gripping questions about who we are and what we tried to do.”
They were, he says, able to create a range of audience reactions from laughter to horror to sadness.
He also liked that Sondheim and Weidman took risks in combining the surreal and the documentary, the comic and the tragic.
The music embraces all American musical genres that reflect the periods of the assassins. Thus the show has songs that sound like folk and revivalist numbers as well as those that reflect the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Examining the System
The show opened off-Broadway for a limited run at Playwrights’ Horizons in 1990, but didn’t get a Broadway production until 2004, again a limited run this time at Roundabout Theatre. A production scheduled for after 9/11 was shelved. In the Broadway production, a then relatively unknown Neil Patrick Harris played both the balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Initially many critics liked the show and admired Sondheim and Weidman’s brilliance, but a number were put off by the subject matter and unsure whether the authors were condemning or glorifying the assassins. Some missed the obvious satire in the piece.
In the Globe interview in 2014, Sondheim says, ““Nobody at the end of the show should feel that we have been excusing or sentimentalizing these people. We’re examining the system that causes these horrors. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t guarantee the happiness. That’s the difference. These are people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.”
The Yale production which runs through Saturday, April 8 has assembled a cast that includes Broadway veterans Stanley Bahorek (as Guiseppe Zangaria), who has appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, Stephen DaRosa (as Charles Guiteau), who received a Connecticut Critics Circle award for his performance in These Paper Bullets!, Austin Durant as the Proprietor, and P.J. Griffith as Leon Czolgosz. Robert Lenzi, who was in Tuck Everlasting and South Pacific on Broadway, plays John Wilkes Booth.
Other cast members include Dylan Frederick, a third year student at the Yale School of Drama, as the Balladeer.
Assisting in the production is Andrea Grody as music director. She is fresh from the off-Broadway debut of the musical The Band’s Visit, which received rave notices. David Dorfman is doing the musical staging.
The production team includes Riccardo Hernandez who has created the sets, Ilona Somogyi the costumes, and Yi Zhao the lighting. Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes are the sound designers and Michael Commendatore is the projection designer.
Assassins runs Friday, March 17 to Saturday, April 8 at the University Theater, 222 York Street, New Haven. For tickets, visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.