When it premiered in 1991, everyone agreed it was groundbreaking and played a key role in musical theatre reaching a new level of audacity and accomplishment, but audiences did not line up around the block for tickets. With thanks to the primarily negative reviews critics assailed it with, the show closed somewhat quickly. Many attributed it to timing, as Assassins opened in the middle of the Persian Gulf War and the concept of going to see a satiric, though insightful play about killing off a number of American Presidents seemed to be in bad taste, to say the least.
TWO THUMBS UP
Things were a little different when the show was revived on Broadway earlier this year, starring Neil Patrick Harris of TVs Doogie Howser, MD. Curiously, America was in yet another war, but the public not only embraced the show this time around, so did the critics. In June 2004, it garnered five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, and enjoyed an extended run and packed houses.
OTP Executive Director George Beeby says that just like it was for the Broadway revival, timing is playing an important role in terms of staging Assassins in Traverse City.
This is a show that weve been looking at doing for awhile, because it is a unique and challenging piece of musical theatre from Sondheim, the undisputed master of the genre, said Beeby. We decided to do it a couple of years ago and then secured the rights long before it went back on Broadway this year. The fact that it did so well there has helped generate a lot of interest and name recognition, and when you couple that with it being an election year, you have a dynamic, controversial show that will stir up some lively debate about the faults, triumphs and enduring quality of our democratic system.
An adult-oriented show that contains
some strong language and violence, Assassins evokes a fraternity of presidential assassins and would-be assassins spanning 100 years of American history, including John Wilkes Booth, Lynette Squeaky Fromme, John Hinckley and Lee Harvey Oswald, to name a few. Some of the lesser-known names range from Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau to Samuel Byck and Giuseppe Zanagara. What they all have in common, and sing about, is their (and everyones) right to be happy and have dreams, perhaps even 15 minutes of fame. What they believe makes this possible is the sense of an America whose extraordinary freedom has created a land where events of all kinds can happen. Any kid can grow up to be the President; any kid could also grow up to kill one.
A VILLAINS REVUE
Andre Bishop was the Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, the group who first presented Assassins in New York in January 1991. Six months later, after the show closed, he reflected on why it failed, even though he, and everyone who worked on it, saw the play as an artistic triumph.
We are accustomed, in our musical theatre, to examining the lives of those Americans who reveal to us the best part of who we are: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George M. Cohan, said Bishop. Sondheim and Weidman (John, who wrote the shows book) set themselves to a different task. And what they succeeded in doing, brilliantly, was to humanize these assassins in a series of vignettes, sketches, set pieces and ballads, and thereby allow us to get into their minds. Their individual stories, part fiction and mostly fact, were presented on stage for us to see, and seeing America through the stories of its villains, instead of its heroes was an unsettling and unusual experience.
Bishop recalled that at the end of one of the performances, an audience member said to another that while he liked the show, he wasnt sure who one was supposed to side with or feel sorry for. With tears in her eyes, the companion replied Us. Youre supposed to feel sorry for us.
That was the power of this show, said Bishop. You went out into the night thinking how much you loved your country despite how troubled it had become, and you felt happy and sad to be an American. The show touched a nerve, God knows, and it did so in a funny, daring, high wire-act way. Sondheim, Weidman and their talented colleagues created something amazing. The show will live on.
It would seem so. Beeby and members of the cast of Assassins know that they are taking on a project that will be cheered by some and perhaps reviled by others. When it first opened, David Richards of the New York Times wrote, Nothing quite prepares you for the disturbing brilliance of Assassins.
That may still be the case, said Beeby, but we know that Traverse City is an intelligent community that respects the entire gamut of theatre from staples like Damn Yankees to fresh new works, like Art, which we had an incredible response to when we did it this past spring. Essentially, this show is about the dark side of the American dream and the questionable drive for power and celebrity in our society. Theres a lot to challenge the audience with, and theres a lot that will entertain them in the process.
Directed by OTP veteran Terry
Lawrence, who has helmed some of her own original plays in addition to musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, the cast of Assassins features Brian Dungjen (John Wilkes Booth), Brett Nichols (Balladeer), Rob Stow (Charles Guiteau), Bart Ingraham (Leon Czolgosz), Daniel Jablonski (Giuseppe Zangara), Al Lien (Samuel Byck), Nick Pilarski (John Hinckley),
Jody Kluck (Lee Harvey Oswald), Phil Murphy (Proprietor), Taylor Beia (Billy), Jennifer Archibald (Sara Jane Moore), Amanda Strong (Squeaky Fromme) and Bonnie Deigh (Emma Goldman), Wizard (Executioner), David Guthrie (Blane/Herold), Tom Pritchard (President Garfield/Warden), Sherry Burford (Chaplain/Priest), Hedges MacDonald (Bystander), Don Kuelhorn (Bystander), Susan Cockfield (Bystander) and Billie Thompson (Bystander).
Assisting Lawrence are Niky Girard (Assistant Director), Tom Stokes (Vocal Director), Sam Clark (Music Director), Jen Miles (Stage Manager), Margaret Schaal (Producer), Cinder Conlon (Lighting Designer), Mike Nunn (Set Designer), Kathy Verstraete (Costumer), Bernadette Groppuso (Prop Wrangler), Gary Bolton (Sound), Wizard (Projections) and Stacy Griffiths (Projections).
Assassins runs September 3-4, 9-11, 16-18 and 23-25 at 8 p.m., and on Sundays, September 12 and 19 at 3 p.m. Single tickets are $20, with a student and senior rate of $16 on Thursdays only. For more information or reservations, call (231) 947-2443, fax (231) 947-4955, or visit the OTP website at