There are two questions worth asking when mounting a production of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1990 musical Assassins, a darkly comic panoramic view of the men and women who killed (or try to kill) the president of the United States. Is this the right time to do the show? Is there any right time to do the show?
Cut to New York City Center, July 15, 2017 – nearly six months to the day from when Donald Trump was sworn in as our commander-in-chief – and I can vouch the audience reaction was, at least in one way, far different from the two previous major New York productions (including the Roundabout Theatre’s Tony Award-winning revival in 2004). During the “The Ballad of Booth,” when the balladeer (gorgeously sung by the excellent Clifton Duncan) sang “every now and then, the country goes a little wrong,” there were peals of laughter. When, seconds later, he sang “every now and then, a madman’s bound to come along,” the laughter was much louder and heartier – with the clear implication that while Sondheim was referring to the characters on stage, the madman in many theatergoers’ mind was sitting in the White House.
Still, the true message of the musical comes through loud and clear in Anne Kauffman’s beautifullycast and thoughtfully conceived production. While the leader of this grisly pack, John Wilkes Booth (magnificently rendered by Steven Pasquale) spends his time trying to convince his compatriots that it’s “fun to kill a president,” the authors clearly make their case that killing solves nothing and that the course of history has never been changed by the actions of those who use a gun to make their point.
Far from a simple morality play, Assassins is one of musical theater’s most complex works, as it humanizes (to some degree) these troubled souls, from John Booth, who seemingly sees himself as Brutus, to Abraham Lincoln’s Julius Caesar, to the unhappy immigrants Leon Cosglosz (a superbly downtrodden Shuler Hensley) – in love with the fiery Emma Goldman (very well played by Pearl Sun) – and Guiseppe Zangara (a stunningly angry Alex Brightman) to the mentally unstable, bombastic Charles Guiteau (a dynamic John Ellison Conlee), lovesick John Hinckley (the bathetic and pathetic Stephen Boyer), and, eventually, troubled Lee Harvey Oswald (movingly portrayed by Cory Michael Smith), who, here, has no intention of killing JFK until talked into it by Booth and company.
Moreover, for all its darkness, Weidman and Sondheim provide genuine opportunities for light and laughter, often to a strangely copious degree. These arrive mostly in the exchanges between Gerald Ford’s two would-be killers: hippie-dippie Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (a marvelous Erin Markey) and bored, scattered housewife Sara Jane Moore (a barely recognizable Victoria Clark, who practically walks off with the show with her priceless deliveries.)
Amusement also appears to be the main raison d'être for including the lesser-known Samuel Byck (an eerily convincing Danny Wolohan), who intended to crash a 747 into Richard Nixon’s White House in 1974, and whom we spend time with during two rather extended monologues – one involving a long-taped missive to Leonard Bernstein.
Intriguingly as well, the authors’ view of the American people proves to be a double-sided coin. In “How I Saved Roosevelt,” we listen to a few self-involved people taking credit (most likely without any merit) for preventing FDR’s death, while in the stunningly beautiful “Something Just Broke,” there’s real pain in the voices of those who have just learned of JFK’s passing.
So yes, the time is now (many of us, no matter who we voted for, would be shocked and saddened by the assassination of President Trump), and the time is always for Assassins, especially when it’s done with this much conviction!