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Assassins Arises

Frank talk about Assassins, the controversial musical that became even more controversial after 9/11/01. logo

Last September--after the World Trade Center attack--the Broadway production of Assassins was postponed by the Roundabout Theatre. I asked readers if they thought the decision was a good one. One on-target response came from a Harvard student named Adam Ross Pearlman, who said, "Postponing the production in the near future makes sense, because the specific imagery conjured by Byck talking about dropping a 747 on the White House is too much--and because the twisted comedy in Zangara shooting FDR because of a sour stomach just wouldn't ring as funny for many right now. I agree with Sondheim that it asks too much of an audience in the immediate future to put aside their gut reactions and adopt a more analytical, almost Brechtian approach to the piece. But this won't be true forever. Assassins is a fantastic piece of theater; it may well be the finest that Stephen Sondheim has written (which obviously says quite a lot). It deserves a Broadway run, it deserves it soon and, by the spring, I think it will be able to find an audience."

Indeed, the show did receive a production in the spring--by that same Adam Ross Pearlman, in fact. He mounted a damn good one at the Loeb Experimental Theatre, where Learning from Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, performs. It's the same space where, more than 30 years ago, I saw Christopher Durang's one act-play Robert? (yes, the question mark was part of the title) as well as Green Julia starring Fred Grandy, (long before he hopped aboard the Love Boat, which was long before he was elected to Congress). I won't be surprised if someday I'm bragging just as much about Megan Gaffney (Sara Jane Moore), Julie Goldin (Squeaky Fromme), Dan O'Shea (Leon Czolgosz), Samuel H. Perwin (The Balladeer), Oussama Zahr (Charles Guiteau), or any of the others--not to mention Pearlman, who added his own distinct touches. Just one good example out of many: Here, after Booth taunts Czolgosz to break the bottle and he doesn't, Booth breaks it for him. There's no question that he is going to be the evening's greatest destructive influence.

I was there because Pearlman had asked me to join in a panel discussion with Ziad Munson, a sociology lecturer at Harvard; Spiro Veloudos, the producing artistic director of Lyric Stage, whose production of Assassins last year broke the theater's box-office records; and last but (needless to say) hardly least, John Weidman, the bookwriter of Assassins. I asked Weidman if he'd heard from any of the assassins depicted in the show. He mentioned that the children of Sam Byck--the would-be assassin who wore a Santa Claus suit and planned to slam the aforementioned 747 into the White House--tried to get an injunction against Weidman and Sondheim, claiming their father was not a public figure and therefore could not be written about without their permission. But Weidman and Sondheim's lawyer wrote back that the children had to face that Byck was indeed a public figure, and that was the end of that.

Veloudos 'fessed up that, until Assassins, he had never once heard of Samuel Byck...and I had to admit that I hadn't, either. Pearlman wryly mentioned that if you call up the name on an Internet search engine, you'll mostly find it because of this show. (I tried when I got home. Actually, there is more information about the fact that Byck had been a Santa Claus in December of 1973 and kept the suit. His attempt to hijack that 747 ended in a number of people on the plane being killed before he shot himself in the head. That he never got to actually make an assassination attempt relegated his fiasco to lesser news coverage, which is why so many of us didn't know about it.)

In the show, Byck is heard taping a message to Leonard Bernstein. Someone asked Weidman if any of what he says in the show comes from that actual tape. Weidman admitted that, while the tape still exists and is part of the Leonard Bernstein archive (I'm surprised they kept it) and that he heard it--he described Byck's voice as somber and plodding--everything in his two speeches are totally Weidman. (Must be. After all, in the first speech, Byck urges Bernstein to "forget the long-hair shit," and that good advice certainly wouldn't have come from a crazy man. Nobody remembers Bernstein's classical works, but millions upon millions know at least one of his Broadway scores.)

Weidman also reported that Squeaky Fromme, who tried to knock off President Ford in 1975, got a copy of the original cast album of Assassins and went on record as saying that she didn't much care for her song, "Unworthy of Your Love." To which I added, "Well, what does she know?"

There was a bit of discussion on "Something Just Broke," the song that was neither in the original Playwrights Horizons production in 1991 nor on the original cast album, because Sondheim wrote it some years later. Pearlman said that he didn't feel the song was necessary and, given that Music Theatre International allows a director the option to do the show with it or without it, he made the choice to drop it. But Weidman says that he likes the song, wants it to be in every Assassins, and will tell MTI to make it mandatory--"So yours," he told Pearlman, "may very well be the last production that doesn't include it."

Stephen Sondheim
I admired the audience member who asked if Sondheim had created a song from something that Weidman had written, for bookwriters always note that some of their better lines or speeches are appropriated by composers and lyricists, who turn them into songs. Indeed, Weidman reported, it was he who wrote: "There's another national anthem playing, not the one you cheer at the ball park."

There was much discussion about the now famous, surreal scene where John Wilkes Booth and the other assassins, past and future, convince Lee Harvey Oswald to join their "family" and shoot the president. I pointed out that, after I saw this scene at Playwrights, I couldn't face it for years, because Kennedy was beloved to me. After all, I had grown up Catholic (as JFK was) in Massachusetts (his home state) and enjoyed his presidency through my high school years. When I did finally face it again, I was astonished at its power and skill (the scene doesn't have an ounce of fat on it), and I now consider it one of the greatest scenes ever written for a musical. (I did ask Weidman if he ever, in any draft, had Oswald question Hinckley and Booth's mentions of President Ronald Reagan. Whenever I see the scene, I expect him to say "Ronald Reagan? You mean the guy who hosts GE Theater on TV every Sunday night?" Weidman gave an unqualified no.)

Finally, there was some discussion on whether Assassins can commercially succeed in a post 9/11 climate. I reported that, last September, half my readers (primarily the older ones) had said no while the other half (mostly the younger ones) had said yes. (When I reviewed the balloting once I returned home, I saw that it was actually two-thirds no and one-third yes.) At the time, I had said no, too--but I added that, while preparing for the panel discussion, I'd read the show twice before I even realized that I once deemed it inappropriate and that it didn't strike me that way any more. Once again, Sondheim is right: A horrific event "hurts a while, but soon, the country's back where it belongs." I'm looking forward to that Roundabout production in the fall of 2003, but I'll have Adam Ross Pearlman's production to sustain me until then.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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