Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman’s ‘Assassins’ gathers a killer roster of performers
“Assassins” is a hard musical to love, but maybe even a harder one to forget.
This show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is built around a rogue’s gallery of infamous Americans who tried, in some cases successfully, to kill the president of the United States. As a description, “audacious” seems far too tame for a musical that searches for the pep in pathological and even makes treason tuneful.
Cognitive dissonance is built into a work that saves some of its prettiest melodies for the most murderous maniacs. Frank Rich, in his review of the 1991 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, called it “an antimusical about antiheroes.” The show was a hit off-Broadway, but it took 13 years for this disturbing vaudeville to make it to Broadway.
A planned 2001 Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, was postponed because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the country still smoldering, how could audiences be expected to turn out for a musical that includes one attempted assassin who wanted to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House?
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If history always seems to be bumping into “Assassins,” it’s probably because the dark cultural currents that give rise to John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and their copycat kind are continually being replenished in a nation that enjoys dividing its citizens into winners and losers.
The tumultuous history of “Assassins” is recalled in “Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ‘Assassins,’” a vibrant recorded benefit for New York’s Classic Stage Company, conceived and directed by artistic director John Doyle, one of Sondheim’s most inventive contemporary interpreters.
Doyle was in rehearsal with “Assassins” last year when New York performance venues were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The show will reopen the off-Broadway theater later this year, and this documentary (available till Monday) is both a salute to the musical and to the scrappy brilliance of theater artists, whose survival is being tested like never before.
How will the show play after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol? Possibly no longer as an exhibition of deranged, fame-seeking extremists but as a window into widespread American grievance. “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the musical’s opening (and closing) number, looks at what can happen when the government is blamed for standing in the way of a disaffected citizen’s pursuit of happiness.
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In her preface to the documentary, Hillary Clinton calls attention to the dire situation of theaters, like CSC, which are struggling to resuscitate themselves after being dark for so long. If anyone has the right to be unsettled by “Assassins,” it’s the former secretary of State, senator and first lady, who, despite all the obstacles thrown in her path, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming our first woman president. But with the authority of someone who knows the dark underbelly of American politics, she makes the case for a musical that “dares its audience to see our country and assess our national myths through the eyes of our villains instead of our heroes.”
The most joyous aspect of this documentary is in watching cast members from the off-Broadway premiere, the Broadway production and the upcoming CSC revival compare notes about their characters and musical numbers. They also sing together over Zoom, lending their different colors to songs that balance sincerity and sendup on the barrel of a gun.
“Tell the Story” captures time itself in juxtaposing actors from different generations in the same roles. While the older performers offer us a taste of what they can still magnificently do, we’re also given glimpses of their turn in the “Assassins” spotlight.
What makes the show tricky and ahead of its time is a running theme. The difficulty, however, only seems to enhance the savor.
To further whet our interest, there’s a brief sample of “The Ballad of Booth” between Will Swenson (cast as Charles Guiteau, President James A. Garfield’s assassin, in Doyle’s production) and Audra McDonald, as husband and wife conclude the program with a final pitch for donations. A little more McDonald and I might have converted from an “Assassins” agnostic to a holy roller.
I’ve seen the show only once, during the 2004 Broadway premiere at Studio 54. I admired the conceptual ambition and clever craft, but the show left me wanting to race home and take a shower. But first impressions with Sondheim musicals aren’t last impressions, and I’ve been waiting for another opportunity to encounter a work that cracks open an American psychosis that’s entangled with our national religion, celebrity.
Sondheim, nobly bearing his 91 years, makes an appearance at the end of the documentary with Weidman to reflect on the peculiarly American nature of this story. But he perhaps summed up the musical’s intention most clearly in “Look, I Made a Hat,” the second of his two-volume collected lyrics and attendant commentaries, when he concluded:
“How could one inconsequential angry little man cause such universal grief and anguish? More important, why would he?
“That’s what ‘Assassins’ is about.”
The return of this recalcitrant musical is an encouraging sign that the theater won’t be pulling its punches when it finally comes back.
'Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s "Assassins"'
Where: Streaming via Classic Stage Company
When: Through 5 p.m. Monday
Tickets: Free (donations accepted)
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