by Lorie Lewis Ham
The Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins is coming to Fresno State next week so I thought it would be fun to take a look at this unusual musical which some say is possibly the most controversial musical ever written—that statement alone makes me want to see it!
Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. It uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to produce a revue style portrayal of men and women who have attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States. Assassins and would be assassins from different periods in history meet and interact. The music varies to reflect the popular music of the eras depicted. The musical first opened Off-Broadway in 1990, and the 2004 Broadway production won five Tony Awards. It opened in London in 1992 and through the years the show has been produced all over the world.
The original Broadway production was scheduled for 2001 but was postponed to April 22, 2004 because the content was sensitive in light of the events of September 11, 2001. It ran for 101 performances with Neil Patrick Harris starring in the roles of The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, Marc Kudisch in an extended role as The Proprietor, and Michael Cerveris as John Wilkes Booth, for which he received a Tony Award.
The three versions (original, London and Broadway) were not identical. Roles were combined, and the song “Something Just Broke” was new to the London production. In 1991, Theatre Communications Group published the libretto, which did not feature “Something Just Broke”.
The current licensed version of the musical reflects the 2004 Broadway revival. Although the script does not combine The Balladeer and Oswald into a single role, many productions have followed the revival in doing so.
Characters in Assassins are as follows:
• The Proprietor: gun salesman who provides the characters with their weapons at the beginning of the show
• The Balladeer: narrator who provides the stories of the assassins
• Ensemble: crowd members, chorus, etc.
• John Wilkes Booth: assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
• David Herold: accomplice of John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
• Charles Guiteau: assassin of President James Garfield
• President James Garfield: twentieth President of the United States
• James Blaine: Secretary of State who received a deluge of letters from Charles Guiteau
• Leon Czolgosz: assassin of President William McKinley
• Emma Goldman: anarchist known for her political activism who also interacted several times with Leon Czolgosz
• Giuseppe Zangara: attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt
• Lee Harvey Oswald: accused for killing President John F. Kennedy
• Samuel Byck: attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon
• John Hinckley: attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan
• Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme: attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
• Sara Jane Moore: attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
• President Gerald Ford: thirty-eighth President of the United States
• Billy: Sara Jane Moore’s son
Interview with the director of the Fresno State production of Assassins Brad Myers:
Lorie: Is there anything about your production of Assassins that is unique or different?
Brad: Assassins is a wonderfully theatrical piece. Consequently, there are many opportunities to explore unique interpretations of many moments in the play. One example is the moment when John Hinckley begins to envision recurring images of Ronald Reagan and futilely tries to shoot them. It is a surreal projection of the mind of Hinckley, and can be theatrically realized in many different ways. We are using ensemble actors in Ronald Reagan masks who move across the stage like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Another distinct aspect of our production is the use of a larger ensemble than the original production. This amplifies the presence of the American people and allows for moments of greater spectacle, providing a powerful counterpoint to the intimate portraits of the assassins.
But what most distinguishes this production are the exceptional talents of the cast. Their characterizations are historically accurate while also being complex and unique. Additionally, the actors are impressive musicians, ably meeting the demands of Sondheim’s intricate score.
Lorie: Did the fact that this is an election year affect the choice of this show this year? Do you think that fact may bring some added interest in the show?
Brad: Producing Assassins in an election year was not a huge factor in selecting the show. The play is less about presidential politics, and more about the American culture and its influence on the motivations of the disenfranchised citizens who are driven to assassination attempts. However, election years often bring a heightened consideration of who we are as a nation, and what we wish to become. Assassins may be an entertaining and profound part of that discussion.
Lorie: How are the Fresno State shows cast? I noticed that it’s not all students in the cast.
Brad: Fresno State’s mission includes a commitment to both our students and to our community. All University Theatre auditions are open to community members. We are mindful of the need to provide performance opportunities to our Theatre Arts majors, but also will cast non-students who will enhance the overall quality of the production, and help up the game of students who work with the community actors.
Lorie: What do you think is the most interesting thing about this show for the audience?
Brad: Assassins is like no other musical. Many of us dismiss historical figures like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald as merely insane and safely distance ourselves from having anything in common with them. They are un-American. Other historical assassins like Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau are completely unknown to most of us. The audience should be prepared to be re-introduced to these criminals and may find them funny, charming, passionate and distinctly American.
Lorie: What do you like best about this show?
Brad: Since my first exposure to Assassins, the play has always stayed with me; in part, because it is so funny, and in part because it is so passionate. I am left with conflicted feelings toward individuals that I had so easily condemned; and I find myself empathizing with people that I had deemed heartless. As I examine snippets of these characters’ lives, I cannot help but consider the totality of my own life as a product of American culture.
Lorie: Anything else you feel would be interesting for our readers to know about your production of Assassins?
Brad: Most people who are fans of the American musical recognize Stephen Sondheim as a true master of the genre. Assassins is another glistening example of the composer’s genius. But people who dismiss many musicals as being too silly or too frilly, may be compelled by this show’s humor, grit and profound insights. There is no other experience like Assassins.
Don’t miss this fascinating show that opens on May 4 at Fresno State and runs through May 12. Tickets can be purchased from the Fresno State website and at the door. Keep in mind that this show is not for children.
Watch for a review of Assassins in KRL after May 4.
If you would like to learn even more about the history of this musical you can check out the following websites: