THEATER : Aiming High With ‘Assassins’ : Peter Ellenstein has wanted to stage the unsettling Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical for two years, and his persistence paid off for Los Angeles Repertory Company.

<i> Times staff writer</i>

Stephen Sondheim may be the composer most likely to succeed--with the least likely of topics.

From the overzealous slice-n-shaver of “Sweeney Todd” to the depressive-obsessive heroine of his current hit, “Passion,” he has found songs in the hearts of the schmucky and the sickly. And that’s also true with “Assassins,” a less familiar 1991 effort getting its local professional premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 11, 1994 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 11, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong actor--Timothy Smith portrayed the Balladeer from the Los Angeles Repertory Company’s production of the musical “Assassins” in a photograph that appeared last Sunday. Another actor was mistakenly identified in the photo.

The musical features-- you guessed it --such swell fellas as John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley. It’s not your average chorus line(up). Yet that’s precisely the irony that makes the show go.


Playing fast and loose with historical chronology, Sondheim and writer John Weidman revel in the contradictions. The work meditates on what makes President killers (and wanna-bes) tick--in a land where, as one song’s lyrics put it, “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

“Little Mary Sunshine” the show definitely is not. “It’s certainly an uncomfortable topic for a musical,” says director Peter Ellenstein, seated in LATC’s 90-seat Theatre 4, where this Los Angeles Repertory Company staging is being performed as part of the first subscription season at the downtown venue since its resident company folded in 1991. After selling out its regular run, the show has just extended through Jan. 15.

“It is not an easy show to watch for most people,” Ellenstein says. That’s because “Assassins,” like the majority of Sondheim’s most enduring works, is unapologetically ambivalent. “These people and the horrible acts they committed made them into villains,” says Ellenstein, 33, who is also managing director of L.A. Rep. “But had they not committed those acts, they were victims--of a relationship or a world that did not treat them well--and it built into a desperation to do something.”

The premise of “Assassins” is that the folks who take potshots at Presidents aren’t so different from the rest of us. They’re driven by a twisted version of the same American dream that prompts little kids to aspire to the highest office in the land.

Specifically, they’re after their own 15 minutes in the spotlight. “These people are trying to fulfill a backward American dream of achieving notoriety, success or changing the world,” Ellenstein says. “Though we can and should condemn their acts, we need to understand that they came from the same impulses that we all have.”

The musical also asks its audience to consider the context--how people may be driven to violence by the conditions of their existence. “If people do things that you don’t approve of because they are in a particular situation, to just dismiss them as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ is a convenient way of not taking responsibility for the world that you live in,” Ellenstein says. Ergo, crackpots are people too. “The play asks us not to be dismissive of people who are driven to extremes,” Ellenstein says. “Al though we can condemn their actions, we (need to) look at the causes and the reality of what made them do that.”


Possible motives--and a good deal more--are suggested over the two intermissionless hours it takes to perform “Assassins.” The musical introduces us to Booth, Hinckley, McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz, Garfield killer Charles Guiteau, attempted F.D.R. assassin Giuseppe Zangara, wanna-be Nixon nemesis Sam Byck, klutzy Gerald Ford attackers Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore and, later on, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Each of these angry souls makes his or her case, and there are also scenes in which the characters come together across the decades. The music throughout is characteristically Sondheim-esque, yet it also conjures an array of American idioms from barbershop through folk, with the spirits of Copland and Sousa hovering in the wings.

“Assassins” premiered at New York’s Playwrights’ Horizons in 1991, but it wasn’t well-received. In 1992, however, it went on to a markedly successful London run.

And Ellenstein has been after the rights ever since. “I first applied for the rights about two years ago and (Music Theatre International, which controls the rights to most of Sondheim’s works, except some of his earliest efforts) said, ‘Well, we’re hoping for a major production in L.A. If not, we’ll talk about it.’ ”

Ellenstein then penned a letter to MTI, in which he detailed not only his thoughts on “Assassins,” but also a bit of information about L.A. Rep, a group founded in 1966 by, among others, Ellenstein’s father, actor-director Robert Ellenstein, who currently serves as artistic director. “We rehearse for a long time,” says the younger Ellenstein. “We do workshops and take a lot of care with the pieces that we present.”

The company, which has no permanent base, has a commitment to, as their literature states, “reviving theatrical treasures that have fallen into disuse.” They have staged the works of writers as varied as Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett and Clifford Odets and garnered particular acclaim for the senior Ellenstein’s 1967 and 1993 productions of Shaw’s “Misalliance” and a six-actor “Hamlet” first mounted in 1987 and again this season.

L.A. Rep also has some well-connected supporters. One of them, veteran musical theater artist David Craig, put Ellenstein in touch with Sondheim’s personal agent, Flora Roberts, and that proved essential to the “Assassins” production.

Last spring, as L.A. Rep was putting together an in-house reading of the musical, they learned that MTI would finally be releasing the rights in L.A., and that the company was in the running to get them.

Armed with that encouraging news, they went ahead with a reading. “It had such a mixed reaction that it was amazing--from people who absolutely hated it to people who were completely intrigued,” recalls Ellenstein. “One of the purposes of theater is to stimulate ideas and discussion and this certainly did that.”


The rights were granted over the summer and L.A. Rep set to work. Sondheim did not participate in the production, although Ellenstein was able to avail himself of an MTI-provided video of Sondheim and Weidman talking about “Assassins.”

He found the tape useful in furthering his own thinking about the piece, particularly with regard to the notion of society’s collective culpability. “I think the authors’ intent was to get people to look at an America that creates these kinds of people,” Ellenstein says. “All you have to do is walk outside. Any one of those people is a potential assassin, an uncared-for person who, given the opportunity to seize power for a moment, maybe would.”

A bad situation is made worse, Ellenstein feels, because we tend to see our actions as apart from the social fabric. “We don’t look at things and ask, ‘How is what I’m doing reinforcing the things that I like or don’t like?’ ” Ellenstein says. “It’s the old adage that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

“In order to move past a violent society, we have to examine the worst aspects of society and bring them up, because we can’t move forward without them.”

In the case of assassins, Ellenstein feels that neglect may well perpetuate the problem. Clearly, it has not gone away, as the recent case of accused White House assailant Francisco Martin Duran demonstrates. In fact, Duran, who is said to have fired on the Clinton residence, was indicted on the same day that “Assassins” opened in L.A.--a coincidence that’s not lost on the director.

“It will continue to happen, as it just did, as long as people feel disempowered and the only form of empowerment they can find is in taking some violent action,” he says. “The only way these individuals have power is by slapping a gun in their hand. They do something that is within their power to do.”

The task, according to Ellenstein, is to make fewer people feel so powerless--whether their alienation is personal, economic or societal. “It’s the lack of care in most of these assassins that makes them feel isolated,” he says. “Part way through rehearsal, I realized that every one of these scenes is about these people’s desperate reaching out for love.”

Without that sense of belonging--or food and shelter--people may turn against the society that they blame for putting them on the outs. “People who don’t feel safe are dangerous,” Ellenstein says. “Helplessness breeds rage, and all of these people are helpless.”

In that sense, Ellenstein argues that assassins are not so different from other less-notorious criminals. “They are the extreme of a lot of people,” he says. “The guy who robs the liquor store just chose a different way of expressing his frustration than the person who goes up to kill the President.”

That’s not a thesis that’s going to make anyone sleep better at night. Nor is it standard musical theater fare. But it is what makes Sondheim tick.

“Sondheim is not for the masses,” cautions Ellenstein. “For the average person who’s watching TV and deadening their brain cells every day, to come here and all of a sudden have to be on the level of a genius is hard work.”

Yet it’s an effort that Ellenstein feels pays off. “You can’t just walk out whistling it,” Ellenstein continues. “It deserves a lot of chewing. All of the best things do. But even if they hated the show, they go out trying to figure it out.”

* “Assassins,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., (213) 485-1681. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Through Jan. 15. $25-$18.