During high school and college, I came into the world of musical theater through a knack for sight-reading, a survival skill I had honed through years of not practicing. But as an avid teenage fan of soul and jazz, I never developed a worthy ear for the musicals I played for. I secretly thought of them as bowdlerized forms of African American musical traditions (Little Shop of Horrors instantly comes to mind), or, compared to the classic film musicals of the ’30s to mid-’60s, shrill postmodern pop (Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again, though it definitely had its lovely moments).
For some reason, though, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins always held a place in my heart. In hindsight, I guess it’s not too hard to see why: I was in my freshman year of college, thrown in with a hungry group of actors and musicians, an intense five-week rehearsal schedule, and a cache of deadly-looking weapons. It was an exciting and dangerous mix, all in service to a bizarre, campy musical about nine Presidential assassins (four hit their targets, five did not). In fact, premiering off-Broadway in the midst of the Gulf War, the original production of Assassins itself barely made it out alive. It took the bravado of younger, gutsier theater companies to carry on its dubious mythology of the murderers and would-be murderers of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy; FDR, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. Through both narrative and music, Assassins confronted its audience with a radically different vision of America, best captured in the numbers “Everybody’s Got the Right” and “Another National Anthem,” which inserted a dissonant minor key into bouncy vaudevillian song structures. At the height of the Clinton years, this material didn’t pack quite the punch our group was hoping for, coming off more sepia-toned than subversive; still, we were proud of our production, grappling as we did with a dark vein running through American history that rarely saw the light of day.
But even with its thematic relevance, it takes balls to mount Assassins during the climax of a Presidential election season, especially one as bitterly charged as this one. The Friday before Election Day, I caught a new production of the show at the Viaduct Theatre. There were many wonderful things about this version, directed and produced by Billy Pacholski. Musical director Robert Ollis had clearly done his job—the six-piece band was tight, and the singers stretched their voices beautifully to scale the heights of the difficult score. I always get nervous when Guiseppe Zangara delivers his insanely challenging cri de coeur before getting fried in the electric chair, but Kris Hyland executed it—pardon the pun—flawlessly. While the acting was generally more uneven than the singing, the actors who played John Wilkes Booth (Kevin Webb) and Sam Byck (Nick Druzbanski) were standouts, the latter navigating the tricky line between his character’s jocularity and sudden fits of rage to great effect while tape-recording an increasingly unhinged monologue to “Lenny” Bernstein in an ill-fitting Santa suit.
One of my favorite features of this production was the inspired doubling of the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, both played by Sam Button-Harrison. While these characters were originally intended to be separate, the latest version of the script follows the Tony Award-winning 2004 Broadway revival, where Neil Patrick Harris played both roles. It was bone-chilling to watch the earnest balladeer, a one-man Greek chorus, get swallowed up in the menacing group march during “Another National Anthem” before being spit out on the floor, alone, transformed into Oswald. Not even the most optimistic believer in the American Dream, it seems, could avoid being poisoned by its losers and failures. In the Faustian scene that follows, Booth leads the other assassins in re-animating the listless, suicidal Oswald to turn his despair into an act of history. “All you have to do is pull the little trigger,” Booth says calmly, as a trembling Oswald lowers himself to aim his gun out the window.
But there were missteps in the production, too. Harrison reminded me too much of 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page to be credible as the ex-Marine, ex-Soviet defector, and cold-blooded murderer of JFK. Indeed, in spite of the director’s insistence that he wanted to avoid the musical’s typical barbershop veneer for a more “humanized” portrayal of the killers, the broad slapstick of Charles Guiteau and Sarah Jane Moore and the wide-eyed Balladeer/Oswald made the enterprise seem a little too Glee-like. As a result, the emotional centerpiece of the show, the song “Something Just Broke,” which represents the grief of the general public after JFK’s death, delivered much less of an impact than it should. While I never cared as much for the song as most critics seem to do—I always found it cloying, especially when the blocking calls for the ensemble to start moving in a weepy circle—it can serve as a moment of catharsis for the audience, who’ve been subjected to the warped demands of empathizing with psychotic criminals. But when most of the show is a comedy and even macabre execution scenes are riddled with jokes, a late attempt at moral realignment seems forced and hollow. (It could’ve been worse: according to earlier reviews, in a seriously misguided move, Pacholski had shifted this scene to the beginning of the show; the outcry from critics must have prompted him to return it to its original place.)
Most troubling of all was Pacholski’s insistence in his director’s notes that his production was ultimately a “love story”—a tribute to forgiveness and the humanity at the core of all of us. I’m sorry, but this sappy vision is totally wrong. I have no idea what the “right” way of staging Assassins would look like; maybe the material is too weird and flawed by its own premise to ever really be successful. But what I do know is this: Assassins is absolutely, fundamentally not a love story. It’s a story about betrayal—the betrayal of the American Dream, of American patrimony and father figures, and, not least of all, the Brutus-level betrayal of America by its dispossessed. Sick and twisted though they may be, not a single one of these characters (in Sondheim’s vision, at least) would demand love or forgiveness. While their discordant harmonies might interlock briefly with the American popular song, they’re galvanized by their estrangement from the dominant narrative of hope and inclusion—not, as Pacholski suggests, by a desire to be embraced by it. Thankfully, the production itself didn’t give in easily to this reading. If there was any doubt that these assassins wanted our love, the end of the show put it to rest, concluding—as it should—with the stone-faced killers slowly aiming their guns at the audience as the lights went out.