Theater Review: An On-Target “Assassins”

By Martin B. Copenhaver

Assassinations may be so last-generation, but gun violence, and what it reflects about American culture and human depravity, defines our own era as much as any.

Assassins Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd Floor, Boston,  through October 15.

The cast of Assassins at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Photo: Mark S. Howard

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (with a book by John Weidman) features a twisted chorus line of nine assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents, and over the years it has, at times, suffered from a severe case of bad timing. It premiered off-Broadway on December 18, 1990, a month before the American invasion of Iraq, which launched the first Gulf War. At that time, the public was not in any mood to entertain a stinging depiction of the role of violence in American history, with nary a yellow ribbon in sight, so the show did not make it to Broadway. Assassins was finally scheduled to have its Broadway debut in 2001, but it was postponed because the show was considered insensitive in light of the September 11 attacks.

And how about today? The Lyric Stage Company’s production may not come at a time preoccupied with presidential assassinations (the last attempt, on Ronald Reagan, was over 40 years ago), but it is still able to horrify. Assassinations may be so last-generation, but gun violence, and what it reflects about American culture and human depravity, defines our own era as much as any.

The assassins’ attempts to describe what motivates them bring to mind French film director Jean Renoir’s observation, “The truly terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons.” John Wilkes Booth’s motives were a complex mix, but it included a desire to save a failing career. John Hinckley shot at Ronald Reagan to gain the attention of actress Jodi Foster. Giuseppe Zangara had a stomach ailment so severe that he sought relief in trying to kill Franklin Roosevelt. None of their reasons were more than glancingly political, which is striking because their victims are preeminent political figures.

The assassins are a motley group of loners with their individual reasons, but Assassins tries to make them into a kind of community of kindred lost souls. “We are the true conspiracy,” is the way Booth puts it. What binds them together is that they are all seeking the dark underside of the American dream. They feel entitled to be happy, at any cost to others. “Everyone has the right to be happy!” they sing with exuberance. They all want to be remembered. “Attention must be paid,” Booth sums up, drawing on the famous plea in Death of a Salesman.

Many of the songs are a pastiche of various patriotic melodies. There are hints of Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa. The piece that opens the show, and appears throughout as a kind of leitmotif, is a variation on Hail to the Chief: “Hey pal, feelin’ blue?/Don’t know what to do.…C’mere and kill a president.” The juxtaposition of music and words is jarring. As Sondheim does in Sweeney Todd, the sweetest melodies are often given to the creepiest lyrics.

In this production, all of the depictions of the assassins and assassins manqué are fully realized. There is not a weak link. Daniel Forest Sullivan is particularly strong as Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated William McKinley), the working-class immigrant who is a victim of the grinding inequities of the industrial revolution. Robert St. Laurence — who bears a striking resemblance to his character, John Wilkes Booth — gains considerable strength in the second act as he plays a Mephistophelean role in urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot John F. Kennedy.

A lone voice — that of the genial Pete Seeger-type Balladeer — is heard in counterpoint to the chorus of assassins. When they express a dark vision of America, the Balladeer interjects a more hopeful word, such as his response to Booth: “Every now and then a madman’s/Bound to come along/Doesn’t stop the story — story’s pretty strong.” Near the end of the play, the assassins turn on him, led by Booth — much as the characters in Into the Woods turn on the Narrator — for the way he tells the story. He is stripped of his role and of his jacket and left wearing the familiar white T-shirt and jeans of Lee Harvey Oswald. Even the voice of American optimism is recruited to the dark cause of the assassins. Dan Prior, who plays the Balladeer, embodies the transformation so completely that he begins to resemble Oswald.

Throughout most of the show, the hands of the actors grip imaginary guns. After Oswald is given a rifle to shoot the president, however, real guns are brandished by the characters, making the appearance of the real things all the more arresting.

Sondheim objected to Assassins being called a “revue,” but it seems an apt description. If anything, it might have been more effective if it were even more of a revue, using the songs to carry more of the story. The scenes that have no music, such as one that imagines a meeting between Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore — who both attempted to kill Gerald Ford — add little, dragging down the narrative rather than propelling it forward.

The emotional center of the musical is a song that was not in the original production; it was added in London two years later. After Kennedy is shot, the major characters leave the stage and an unnamed chorus sings, “Something Just Broke,” a song that poignantly captures the shock and bewilderment that follows an event like that. It is the only song that attempts to speak for the audience. Its power also makes clear that it is the Kennedy assassination — more than any other event — that haunts the authors and gives their work its emotional depth.

The Lyric Stage is just the right kind of venue for an ensemble piece like Assassins. It is more of a chamber piece than a full symphony and benefits from the intimacy of the room.

This production helps solidify the Lyric Stage Company’s role, established over the last decade, as the preeminent interpreter of Sondheim in Boston, first under the late producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos and now Courtney O’Connor, who succeeded Veloudos in that role and who directed this production of Assassins. Gratefully, the Sondheim oeuvre is vast, so we can look forward to more to come.

Martin B. Copenhaver, the author of nine books, lives in Cambridge and Woodstock, Vermont.

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