This musical is truly ‘Made in America’. No other country could put its blackest heart on stage for all to see, much less turn it into a musical. Whether you think this elevates artistic discourse in the United States to an Olympic level never before achieved in human history, or conversely betrays just how degraded American society has become, is a judgement only an individual theatre-goer can make.
One such person I spoke to at this Public Theater of San Antonio production characterised Assassins (first performed in 1990) as “thought-provoking, disturbing, and maybe topical.” The director of the musical, George Green, picks up on the topical aspect when he relates the play to gun control “and an understanding of what it is that draws a person to violence.” Whether we need a musical about people who shot at American presidents to delve into this psychological rabbit-hole is highly debatable. It certainly represents the darkest vision Stephen Sondheim has ever created (the book is by John Weidman). “Sondheim is always a bit dark” another member of audience told me, and it certainly makes Sunday in the Park with George a true picnic in the park by comparison. My recent review of the Austin production of that play can be read here: https://sunnewsaustin.com/2018/06/09/sondheim-musical-pointillist-or-pointless/
Assassins features two motley crews. First are the crazed and evil people from John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromme who either killed or plotted to kill a president. Second is what was known in Greek tragedies as the Chorus, in this case a cast of seven men and women dressed in misfit garbs who represent the populace at large. In between these groups are a character known as the balladeer, who represents the conscience of the nation (“angry men don’t write the rules,” he says), and another character who gleefully hands out guns to the would-be assassins.
Aside from the over-arching concerns this play provokes, the 18-member cast does a great job with both fine singing voices and great acting ability that portrays a range of psychopathic personalities. Both scenic designer Jeremy Whittington and costumer Sara Brookes did an outstanding job, the former utilising every inch of the small space in this 60-seat theatre, and the latter especially for the sartorial flare of the showman John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin).
The tall and commanding performance of Booth by Chris Berry brings some coherence to an otherwise fractured musical, which does not rise to the level of classic Greek tragedy, even though all the elements are there. My Pandora’s Box title for this review comes directly from a line in the play near its conclusion. After invoking the ancient Greek myth of a box that contains all the world’s ills, which are unwittingly unleashed upon us all, Booth says to his assembled cohort “when you kill the president it is not murder. It is an assassination!”
As for Sondheim’s music, the finale is the most noxious tune possible: Everybody Has the Right To Have Dreams, a totemic song for the country’s worst criminals. The incongruity this represents is striking: by giving assassins the right to fulfill their dreams, they destroy the dreams of an entire nation.
I highly recommend this production for anyone who wants to have their core beliefs challenged. For the rest, perhaps a revival of Mary Poppins will be coming to your local theatre soon!
Assassins is playing through July 1. Visit the website for tickets: www.thepublicsa.org