I’ve questioned a lot of things this past year - the electoral process, the humanity of the American populace, whether or not to let my hair grow out. But there are always universal truths to fall back on; we can turn to these truths in an era where we are bound to be deeply troubled by the news at least twice a day. For me these truths are that I have the support of my family, Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million, and the universe has brought us Stephen Sondheim - so it can’t be all bad.
Now this article isn’t going to be the love letter to Sondheim that I’ve always longed to write. I don’t need to mention that his mother told him on her deathbed that she regretted giving birth to him and he still managed to become the greatest musical theatre composer of all time meanwhile my parents are nice to me and I’m submitting this a week late. I don’t need to mention his countless works that are groundbreaking in form and subject matter. Stephen Sondheim is not the star of this piece - the star is just one relatively obscure piece in his oeuvre, and that’s saying something because his musicals are never hits. This work is Assassins, and I’m not sure if it is even my favourite of his - but it was the one that was ringing in my head on November 9, 2016. In my heartbroken and collapsed state of mind, passages of the score suddenly resonated in a way they never had before.
(Pictured: book writer John Weidman, Sondheim, and director Jerry Zaks at the recording of the Assassins original cast album)
To summarize: Assassins tells the story of the 9 men and women who have killed, or attempted to kill, the President of the United States. Their stories stretch across centuries the first being John Wilkes Booth (played by Gianni Sallese) who assassinated the 16th President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to the most recent being John Hinckley Jr. (played by Manoosh Tavakoli) who attempted to assassinate the 40th President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The themes of the musical cannot be summed up quite as easily as the plot. A short description would include power relations, government mistrust, gun violence, fame versus infamy, who gets their story told, and the fundamental problems with the American dream. It is a complicated and provocative piece that leaves the audience with more questions than answers.
(Pictured: Gianni Sallese as John Wilkes Booth)
When I learned that the Victoria College Drama Society was putting on a production of it right here at University of Toronto it drew in both my curiosity and my skepticism. I always love the idea of a Sondheim production at any level- but it sometimes works out better in theory than in practice. I was overjoyed to discover that was not so in this case. The production let the complications and nuance that exists in so much of Sondheim’s work shine through. I reached out to director Jeff Kennes to discuss the content and logistics of the show- he was very generous with his time and we had a long and fascinating conversation looking at this 27 year old musical through the contemporary political lens. Though Kennes was extremely thoughtful in his responses and gracious with his insights, I left the conversation like I left the musical- with more questions than answers. It is not always the most comfortable feeling but that does not mean it is not valuable- and we are going to have to get used to it in the next four years.
The Victoria College Drama Society approached Kennes to direct Assassins even though he was previously unfamiliar with the piece. However, he was deep into the process of directing the St. Michael's College Troubadours production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, another work that deals with the darker parts of American history. Kennes says he is attracted to the darker and meatier material and with the help of an enthusiastic production team was excited to explore these themes. Assassins is rarely put on, not just because it is an obscure show with controversial matter but also due to Canada’s laws on replicating firearms- which they had to do through sound effect rather than through prop guns as is usually performed. That is not the only struggle with putting on this show in Toronto- it relies so much on American history a Canadian millennial audience may not be familiar with. This was a concern for Kennes who realized that certain references in the book and the score were bound to go over some people’s heads. However, with heavy research from himself and his cast members he attempted to paint a clear portrait of these incidents and these nine people. Casting instantly proved to be an important endeavour, with about 75 auditions the production team narrowed it down to a cast of 17- the 9 Assassins, 7 citizens, and the key role of the proprietor.
The proprietor (played by Cole Currie) can be seen as the villain of the piece representing the media, capitalism, and bureaucracy- he opens the show with the all important idea singing: “Everybody’s Got The Right To Be Happy.” He is surrounded by the Assassins, and the citizens- who are dressed to look like marionette puppets- they perform with a backdrop of a carnival. Kennes and his creative team developed mood boards to explore the idea of everyone being part of this larger engine of American complacency. It was important to treat the designers as designers- rather than builders, as this was a collective creation.
The rehearsal process started with a read through before the Christmas break and starting in January they began rehearsing four times a week. The rehearsal process included running through the music at the beginning and then delving into the scenes (written by John Weidman) separately. The scenes dive into the headspace of these nine unique figures. Leon Czolgosz’s (played by Devon Laird) discontentment with the American dream, which led him to kill William McKinley. The stomach pains Giuseppe Zangara (played by Kenzie Tsang) at the time of his assassination attempt of then President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lynette Fromme’s (played by Meredith Shedden) devotion to Charlie Manson and Sara Jane Moore’s (played by Julia Orsini) general lunacy, both of whom attempted to kill Gerald Ford within one month of each other.
But of course those names do not live on in history, that distinction was only bestowed upon two of the nine Assassins, namely- John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Booth was the first person who physically demonstrated the mortality of the commander in chief, and Oswald was perhaps the most significant. Everyone who was alive on November 22, 1963 remembers where they were; our parents and grandparents remember watching the news distraught by what had happened. These ideas come to fruition in the climactic scene- where John Wilkes Booth comes to convince Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Brandon Vollick) to assassinate John F. Kennedy eventually accompanied by the other 8 assassins longing for Oswald to cement their place in history.
I wasn’t alive on November 22, 1963 but I was, unfortunately, around for November 8, 2016- and, despite trying, it’s a day that I am not likely to forget. Although the days are not identical it’s hard not to think of the similarities- the shock, the fear, and the unrest they poured across the nation. Those very feelings are explored in the musical number that immediately follows Booth and his fellow assassins successfully convincing Oswald to shoot the president. It’s a simple little song that wasn’t included in the original Off Broadway production- that production premiered in 1990, a relatively quiet political time. The Broadway revival premiered in 2004-after being delayed from a 2001 release because of another day of shock, fear, and unrest- September 11, 2001. The added song was called “Something Broke,” and it features the citizens singing where they were when they heard the news, and the feeling that nothing would ever be the same because- something has been irreparably broken.
(Pictured: Lee Harvey Oswald, November 22, 1963, just after his arrest)
Kennes says that, in his opinion, it is the most important number speaking to the American conscious while tying the show together. A large part of the show is about how nobody listens. “Another National Anthem”, an ensemble number, gives the Assassins an opportunity to explain why they did what they did, because normally their side of the story is never told. After all, history is written by the winners. “Something Broke,” speaks to the American people now having no choice but to listen, they’ve been awoken. Assassins is a 1 hour and 40 minute production with no intermission for the audience to sit down and listen.
The audition process began immediately after the election. So the themes of the show were liberalized drastically from the time of the show’s conception to the beginning of production. It was impossible to not view it from the current political lens. Charlie Guiteau (played by Nam Nguyen) for example, the man who shot James Garfield, is largely a comical character and could be looked at just as such. He longs to be successful and has the crazy idea that Garfield might make him the ambassador to France. He is also trying to promote the sale of his book. He is a man who has tried so many ways to be successful, so many ways to “brand himself”, and now he longs for political power, remind you of anyone? Sam Byck (played by Matthew Fonte), the man who tried to kill Richard Nixon, seems like the classic American Dad- an Archie Bunker, a Homer Simpson. A blue-collar gentleman, angry with the establishment, angry at the status quo, and angry about his own fait. In many ways this is the caricature of the typical Trump voter that has been presented to us. Throughout the show there are several images projected onto the screen- a cartoon of Ronald Reagan, a shot of JFK’s motorcade through a window. A member of the production team suggested that perhaps after the final number, when the nine Assassins usually raise their guns, they could show an image of Trump and have the cast point their guns towards it and close the curtains. Kennes rejected this idea because in many ways they would see Trump as one of them.
(Pictured: Matthew Fonte as Sam Byck)
In my favourite number of the musical, “the Ballad of Booth”, we hear the motivations of President Lincoln’s assassin. The song is catchy and poetic, like much of confederate art as Kennes notes. Booth eventually goes into a kind of soliloquy about how Lincoln has destroyed the hope of America, and how those wounds will never go away. He sings for the large body count of the confederate army- and for a moment, the audience is made to sympathize. You get wrapped up in the story he chronicles the sanctity of the past. His tone changes from remorse to anger as he sings: “How the union will never recover, from that vulgar, high and mighty, n**ger lover!” And the reality of his beliefs set in. This characterizes how I feel about the President of the United States and the core message he presented to his voters. We can all get wrapped in nostalgia for a stronger economy and in anger for various corruptions in our government; that’s why Make America Great Again was an effective slogan. But then you dig into what era of American greatness they want to go back to.
In the final refrain of “the Ballad of Booth” the Balladeer (played by Brandon Vollick), an embodiment of the American dream, sings: “Damn you Johnny you paved the way, for other mad men to make us pay, lot’s of mad men have had their say, but only for a day…” Now, a mad man has his say for a lot longer than just a day, and the very problems with our society that led to these nine men and women killing or attempting to kill their president has given him the opportunity to quite possibly kill a lot more people. We won’t have all the answers, but hopefully we’ll have a lot of questions and the aptitude to listen.
ASSASSINS was produced by VICTORIA COLLEGE DRAMA SOCIETY and performed at the Isabel Bader Theatre from March 9-11 2017. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Jeff Weidman, Directed by Jeff Kennes. Images courtesy of the VCDS Facebook Page. Image of Weidman, Sondheim, and Zaks from http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/. Image of Oswald from Bettman Archive.