When composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman's fiercely provocative Assassins hit Broadway in 2004 it landed with a "bang," sweeping in five Tony Awards (including Best Revival), a rave from The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley, and the adoration of fans looking for a razor-sharp alternative to spun-sugar musicals like Wicked. But the show closed almost as quickly as it had gained momentum, shuttering after just 101 performances. Now, eight years later, Roundabout Theater Company has culled together the show's original cast for a one-night-only benefit concert on December 3, bringing the musical about singing murderers and revolutionaries back to its original home at Studio 54. We spoke with original cast member Anne L. Nathan (now of Once) about the show's original run, boy divas vs. girl divas, and which cast member she thinks is most likely to actually kill people for a living.
It's been eight years since Assassins was on stage. Let's kick off with free word association with your cast to jog the memory.
With actors or the characters?
I hope they don't read this. God help me.
Becky Ann Baker.
Mary Catherine Garrison.
Neil Patrick Harris.
I mean, I have tons of good words but…[pauses] "nerd."
Denis O' Hare.
Daddy. Always daddy!
Anne L. Nathan.
Non-cast word association: "Assassin."
Troubled? Ugh, that's so boring! Whatever, I'm not changing it.
I wanted to see if you were paying attention.
Complete the phrase: "Everybody's got the right to…"
…to say whatever they wanna say.
Which original cast member is most likely to be an actual assassin for the U.S. government?
Amazing! I'm gonna go with Denis [O'Hare], because he's the most politically active of the bunch. He might have another side. A dark side.
Which cast member would you be least surprised to discover has been an assassin all along? Mario [Cantone].
On to some real questions. Was it a surprise that Assassins became a cult landmark for Broadway?
We all knew we were in something really cool and cutting edge, and it wasn't for everybody. What was so great is [that] we could see the back of the house [during the show]. Once in a while somebody would leave, and we'd go, "Yes!" It would actually thrill us that someone was so angry they would leave. We got lucky. The New York Times gave us a good review and then everyone wanted to see it. It was this "different" kind of musical, with very different, interesting kinds of actors in—a weirdo group of people.
Why is this reunion concert special?
Because we closed too early. We never expected that in a million years. We knew it was not a typical sell, but we did so well and won so many Tony Awards...but before we knew it we closed. People still say to me, "I so wanted to see it." There's almost no rehearsal [for the concert] but it's so fine. The people who will be in this audience will be the ones who really want to see it, and they'll be part of it.
Assassins is kind of a boys' club. How did the women survive being at the sausage party?
Ha, I love just that! [Original cast members] Becky and Mary Catherine are such great people that they took back the power [for the women], because everybody wanted to hang in their dressing room. Now I'm doing another show with all boys. Once has a gazillion boys. It's a different energy. The women definitely end up being the strong, calm, maternal force.
So the obvious question: are boys or girls bigger divas?
Boys, no question.
How does boy-diva-ness manifest itself?
Oh, I'm gonna get myself in trouble with my cast. I think women say what they need up front. I'll come to work and say, "I need a small accordion, I need an extension on the accordion, I don't want to hurt my neck." They might roll their eyes at me, but then I'm good to go. Guys will pitch fits. They'll be angry. They throw things! But the amazing thing is that they'll get into a fight—like, a real scary fight—and punch each other, and then be like, "We okay, dude?" And then they're good. They don't talk it out, they're not logical. They just kind of vomit it out.
Which assassin [not actor] do you believe is the biggest diva?
Michael [Cerveris]. Not Michael, Michael's awesome, but [John Wilkes] Booth. No question! That ego, being an actor and all. But the amazing thing about Assassins was there were no real-life actor divas. It was a dream rehearsal process. Everyone wanted to get that show, and it was so perfectly cast.
I've heard the iconic moment at the end, with the American flag projected on Neil Patrick Harris' shirt, was a total accident?
They were trying to [project] the flag image on the back wall of the set during tech, but couldn't make out what it was. Neil walked across the stage in a white shirt, and the projection landed on it. And Joe [Mantello] said, "Wait, can you bring it down?" It worked.
What was Sondheim like during the run?
Very funny, incredibly bright, obviously. He's got the greatest, craziest laugh. He's a sweet, humble person and just wants to be treated like that, not like God. [Director Joe Mantello] bought us dinner one night at a restaurant, and Steve was at our table. I remember Kendra [Kassebaum] whispering, "Oh my gosh, he's so normal!" because he took his fork and knife and stuck it in the food we [were all sharing].
He didn't levitate it?
He didn't levitate the food, so we were okay!
Someday, someone will revive Assassins on Broadway again. Who would you like to hand your role [Emma Goldman] down to?
Molly Hager. I love her. And I want to be her/her to be me, so I'm going to go with that.
How does it feel knowing that, after a run that ended too soon, people are paying up to $5000 a ticket to see this reunion?
Are you f***ing kidding me? You can quote me on that! $5000? I had no idea. That's amazing! Now I really hope we don't f*** it up!