Assassins and history

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a musical with history.  The play happens in an abstract space where characters from different centuries meet one another, converse, sing and dance together.  At first glance it resembles a review, a series of numbers where nothing really happens.

Perhaps I should have added the indefinite article “a”, because not only is Sondheim’s play historical, but it has a history, that tells you a great deal about the work.

It was out of step with the public when it first appeared in 1990 during the upsurge of nationalism surrounding the Gulf War.  A Broadway production meant for the fall of 2001 foundered on the even bigger wave of patriotism that followed the attacks of Sept 11th; in the fall of 2001 such plays simply couldn’t be mounted

And in the wake of the shootings in Arizona last week, similar questions have been put surrounding the revival of the Talk is Free Theatre / Birdland Theatre co-production of Assassins from last year.  On CBC Adam Brazier –the director –was asked whether any thought was given to cancelling the run.  Thank goodness the interviewer let him off the hook by saying it was too late to cancel.

And thank goodness they didn’t cancel.  While it’s true that some people find this material offensive, I think Sondheim is therapeutic.

For most of the play, we watch a kind of debate between two contrasting abstract figures, who could be virtues or vices from a morality play.  The Proprietor invites us to step up as if in a carnival shooting gallery:

Proprietor:  Hey, pal, feelin’ blue?
Don’t know what to do?
Hey, pal, I mean you—
Yeah.  C’mere and kill a President.

Just like that, the subject is there before you.  In that abstract space we’ll encounter each of the historical assassins, telling their story, and just as importantly, singing their song in the style of their era.

The other abstract figure is the Balladeer.  Where the Proprietor is brusquely theatrical, and mustn’t sound too pretty, the Balladeer is lyrical & contemplative, lamenting the sad choices of each assassin, and singing the prettiest music in the show.

But as the assassins learn that they are being left behind –in a song where we’re again implicitly in that shooting gallery, because each of them loudly demands their prize—they turn on the Balladeer.  The stage instruction is wonderfully impossible: “the Balladeer is swallowed up by the assassins and disappears“.

If there is a story, it’s a very subtle battle between words and music, where music is a vehicle for reflection, while words are a place for brutal action.  The frustrated assassins dispense with the Balladeer as surely as they dispense with sensitive reflection.

Shall we assemble the suspects in a line-up?

  • John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865
  • Charles Guiteau killed James Garfield in 1881
  • Leon Czolgosz killed William McKinley in 1901
  • Emma Goldman was questioned following McKinley’s death, but except for one of her speeches –found in Czolgosz’s pocket at the time of his arrest– she probably had no connection to the anarchist assassin
  • Giuseppe Zangara killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in 1933, but may have meant to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • Samuel Byck attempted to hijack a plane in 1974, hoping to crash it into the White House, in order to kill Richard Nixon.
  • Sara Jane Moore and Lynete “Squeaky“ Fromme both made unsuccessful attempts to kill Gerald Ford in 1975
  • John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981

Missing from that list is perhaps the most famous of all, the pivotal figure in the drama of Assassins, such as it is.

Shortly after the Balladeer is swallowed by the frustrated chorus of assassins, we meet the key figure in the last part of the musical, namely Lee Harvey Oswald, in the infamous book depository on the day JFK visited Dallas.

It’s especially powerful that for this production, the casting requires the Balladeer to reappear as Oswald.  I wondered at first if this was how Sondheim wrote it, but no, apparently several productions employed two different actors, as these are conceived as separate roles.  The first production I am aware of that used doubling to make the connection was the Broadway production employing Neil Patrick Harris as Balladeer / Oswald.  I suspect that choice will be standard from now on.  While it’s hard to explain logically, It makes complete sense at an emotional level.

The world of the play even loops back indirectly to its composer.  At one point, Byck (the failed hijacker) speaks into a tape recorder, addressing an unreachable icon, namely Leonard Bernstein.  Surely a young Sondheim dreamed of talking to Bernstein, and of course would go on to collaborate on West Side Story.  The moment is profoundly mysterious, considering the ongoing complaint of the assassins: that people won’t listen to them.  And when we remember that subtle debate between the Balladeer (music of reflection) and the Proprietor (words of action), and notice how dark this musical is, we can’t help but think that Sondheim’s identification with Byck is more than casual.

I saw the same production last year.  I sat among keen young students gasping at the audacity of Sondheim’s ideas, occasionally laughing at the most obvious gags, but otherwise like a congregation in church.

This year?   Maybe it’s just my luck but the night I went the audience felt so mature, without reverence this time, that they let their appreciation show.   I couldn’t tell whether it was the production or the audience that thwarted the laughter last year.  This year’s cast – there are a few changes—represents a subtler reading of the play.  The two women assassins — Moore and Fromme—are much broader this year, played as comic relief, and oh how welcome it is.

I wondered, though, whether current events in Arizona had strangely conspired to aid the comedy of the work.  A sensitive person needing catharsis could come to the play for therapeutic laughs.

The production had a few clear highlights and heroes.

Foremost among them must be the invisible man, namely music director Reza Jacobs.  With his small ensemble the ideal effect was achieved, whereby singers could face the audience with no pit or conductor in the way, while the accompaniment was always there in support of the actors.  The pace was wonderfully tight, while the tone was unabashedly ordinary just as Sondheim wrote it, full of rough edges and abrupt shocks.  This is not a piece written to show off singers, but a taut dramatic vehicle.  More than anyone else Jacobs made the magic happen.

Whoever made the choice to avoid using guns dodged a logistical nightmare considering how many shots are fired by so many actors in this show.  Imagine co-ordinating so many guns backstage that must fire properly.  Instead of guns we see a prop that is obviously similar yet not a gun, even if it must stand in for a gun;  at the appropriate moments the band makes all the noise we need to be jarred as if a real gun were being fired.

The Ballad of Guiteau is one of the more ambitious compositions in the musical, juxtaposing an old-fashioned hymn-tune with a cakewalk.  If you were to peruse all the different versions online via youtube –a painful prospect! –you’d quickly see just how astonishingly difficult this number is, balancing the dreamy hymn tune that verges on the lugubrious, with a cakewalk that needs to be brisk yet intelligible.

And as a complication, its combination of musical forms feels very pretentious, requiring a very subtle approach if it isn’t to vanish under the weight of its own heavy-handed text.  Steve Ross, reprising the role he first showed us last year, finds the perfect balance between comedy and pathos.  I believe this time out he’s found additional humour in some of the lines, yet he is the most authentic of the historical figures onstage in this production.

Adam Brazier, director, embraces the madness at the heart of the musical.  Brazier helped bring out the textual music to be found in the dissonance between these disparate speaking voices.  The moderns are sometimes stridently loud, especially the wonderful pair of Janet Porter’s mad hippy take on Squeaky Fromme, against the crabby suburban angst of Lisa Horner’s Sara Jane Moore (both new additions to the revival).  Ross’s Guiteau and Paul McQuillan’s Booth in contrast sound authentically 19th century.

As balladeer Geoffrey Tyler carries almost every scene he’s in, at times stealing the show with his gentle voice.  That’s doubly powerful considering the arc of the story, whereby the assassins eventually silence him, as if the music had died.  His chief adversary, the droll Proprietor, is Martin Julien, a vocal chameleon sliding through the dramatic underbrush, always able to find the right tone to blend into each scene.

Speaking of silence, the show will fall silent after its last performance January 23rd.  I believe it’s better this year than last, which probably means the tickets will soon be gone.

Don’t miss it.

Assassins runs until January 23rd at the Theatre Centre  1087 Queen St W., Wednesday – Monday at 8:00 pm as well as matinees Saturday & Sunday.  Tickets 416-504-7529, online at, in person, or at the door.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Assassins and history

  1. barczablog says:

    Note: Assassins was originally supposed to end Jan 23rd but they’ve added Mon January 31 – Sunday February 13, 2011. You should see it if you can.

  2. Pingback: 10 Questions for Arkady Spivak | barczablog

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