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‘Assassins’ Murders ‘Em in London : Stage: New York was cool to Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical about the murderers--and would-be killers--of U.S. Presidents. It’s now a hit in England.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk about bad timing.

If you were to open a complex musical with a controversial theme--the stories of nine people who at different times tried to kill U.S. Presidents--you would not want to do so when the country was in an ultra-patriotic mood.

But that was the fate of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which opened in a workshop production at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in December, 1990--during the prelude to the Gulf War.

It received reviews ranging from cool to hostile. Some critics questioned whether presidential assassins were a fit subject for a musical, while a few found it frankly unpatriotic. It never went on to Broadway.

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Now “Assassins” has been revived here, and the story is very different. London theater critics have raved about the show, which has become the hot ticket in town this fall. The 250-seater Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden is likely to sell out for the entire 12-week run of “Assassins,” and there is already talk of transferring the show to a larger theater next year.

This has come as a huge relief to Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics to “Assassins,” and to his librettist John Weidman. “I think British audiences will be able to see the show more clearly than was the case in New York,” said Sondheim before its London opening. “But whether they’ll have any emotional identification is what I’m curious to see. The British can certainly relate to Kennedy’s death. Whether they can relate to Lincoln’s isn’t clear. I mean, I’ve seen plays about Queen Victoria and I’m interested, but I can’t say it does anything for me.”

As it turns out, London audiences have responded warmly to the show’s theme, and do not appear to have been outraged by it. The nation’s critics, accustomed to panning a long succession of bad musicals on the West End stage, have reached for their superlatives.

John Peter of the Sunday Times led the applause, calling it a “lethally brilliant musical” which “pushes further out the limits of this extraordinary theatrical form.” He described the show as “hard, unsentimental and blood-curdlingly funny. It is requiem, it is laughter in the dark, a cry for help.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer thought the show “engages the heart as well as the head, a rare achievement in Sondheim. For all its cleverness, there is a surprising depth of feeling.” Benedict Nightingale of the Times agreed. “Assassins,” he said, was “an audacious blend of bang and whimper . . . the show’s originality, bite and drive should silence most doubts.” The Guardian’s Michael Billington went even further: “It restores my faith,” he wrote, “in a seemingly bankrupt genre.”

In its current production, “Assassins” is staged like a revue with a fairground setting. At center stage is a game called “Shoot the President,” with cardboard targets of politicians in silhouette, bulls-eyes over their hearts. We see Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau cake-walking joyously on the scaffold before being hanged. It is suggested that actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln partly because he was frustrated by bad reviews. Sondheim has John Hinkley (who shot President Reagan) and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme (Gerald Ford’s would-be killer) sing an insipid love duet called “Unworthy of Your Love” in the style of the Carpenters. But what makes it creepy is that they address their sentiments to, respectively, “Jodie” and “Charlie”--Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.

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A chilling climax takes place at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, where we find a depressed Lee Harvey Oswald about to commit suicide. But before he can do so, the ghosts of the other assassins, past and future, enter to persuade him that putting a bullet in President Kennedy’s head rather than his own will guarantee him immortality.

With hindsight, it seems hardly surprising that “Assassins” elicited such strong reactions when it opened Off-Broadway. “I don’t believe we ever thought it would pluck ‘Cats’ from the New York theater,” Weidman says now. Yet he and Sondheim were taken aback by the depth of feeling among critics toward the show.

“Some people felt we were attacking the essence of America,” said Weidman. “It seemed to me we were doing quite the opposite. This is an American show about Americans. It’s an attempt to examine the darker side of what’s referred to as the American Dream. But I would hope it would not be perceived as anti-American.”

Sondheim says “Assassins” is “about the promises that our political system offers--such as the one that anyone can be President of the United States . . . which is untrue.”

“Assassins” is only the second overtly political show that Sondheim has written. The other, also with Weidman, was “Pacific Overtures,” about the opening of trade routes between the United States and Japan. “I’m not a political animal,” said Sondheim. “I didn’t even read editorial pages until 20 years ago. When I approached middle age, I got more interested in what was going on in the world. When I was 25, I read the show-biz pages first. When I was 40, it was the front page.”

Sondheim spends a fair proportion of his time in Britain. He was present earlier this year for rehearsals of a revival in Leicester of his musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” In 1990 he lectured at Oxford University as its first visiting professor of drama.

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