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Bang-Up Job

The flaws of Assassins are obvious in the new Broadway cast recording, but so are the musical's considerable strengths. logo
"Something elitist, something defeatist." That couplet from a Stephen Sondheim parody in a past edition of Forbidden Broadway neatly sums up what sometimes drives some of us nuts about the Master. His works don't get any more defeatist than Assassins, a new recording of which -- yielded by the 2004 Roundabout Theatre Company revival -- is just out on the PS Classics label. Not quite a book musical (though it has a libretto by John Weidman) and not quite a revue, the revised 1990 work is a literal shooting gallery of American Presidential assassins, successful and un-, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Through monologues, time-defying group interactions, and frequently brilliant songs, Sondheim and Weidman examine the darkest aspects of the American dream and its dreamers.

Why shoot a head of state? For revolution, for revenge, for the sake of the downtrodden -- but most of all, this show suggests, for celebrity. It's the American way, the authors tell us...and tell us...and tell us. With a carnival setting, a calliope intro, and a Proprietor (Marc Kudisch) jauntily urging on this renegade band with the seductive refrain "Everybody's got the right to their dreams," Assassins is a biting indictment of American values, a clear-eyed look at how readily the nation's disenfranchised turn to violence in order to be heard. But when the message is so relentlessly cynical and its deliverers are all emissaries from the lunatic fringe, it takes a deft hand to keep the negativism from becoming knee-jerk and monotonous.

Fortunately, we're talking Stephen Sondheim here. For decades, the man has proven himself a genius at giving eloquent voice to the embittered. Always worth listening to when writing in pastiche mode (think Follies), Sondheim here mines the American folk and pop sound for irony from opening to fadeout. That opening number, "Everybody's Got the Right," quotes freely from "Hail to the Chief," the better to intermingle corny patriotism with unhinged desperation. "How I Saved Roosevelt" borrows Sousa themes from "El Capitan" and "The Washington Post March" to illustrate the vicarious thrills of the crowd members as they prevent Giuseppe Zangara (Jeffrey Kuhn) from gunning down President-elect FDR. The schlocky sound of '70s soft rock wittily permeates "Unworthy of Your Love," with Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison) warbling to the objects of their undying affections, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.

More questionably, Sondheim gives us a Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris) to help relate the stories of Lincoln assassin Booth (Michael Cerveris), McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (James Barbour), and Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Denis O'Hare). The folklike ballads for each are exquisite, with dazzling lyrics and a touch of Woody Guthrie in the melodies; and Harris's tenor is supple and attractive, if a little shaky on the high notes. But having the Balladeer morph into Lee Harvey Oswald at the climax, complete with the famous Zapruder film projected onto his T-shirt in this production, feels less purposeful than gimmicky. And having the other assassins beseech Oswald to legitimize their actions by shooting JFK is just insane; the sequence ascribes motivations to the killer that he is highly unlikely to have had. Even future would-be assassins Hinckley, Fromme, Samuel Byck (Mario Cantone), and Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker) join in this scene; how much sense does that make?

But logic matters less than resonance when you have such a song stack and such fine singing actors. Kudisch is a magnetic, powerful Proprietor; Baker a hilariously disheveled Moore; Cerveris an agonized Booth, a Southern gentleman whose faith in his moral code is unwavering. O'Hare's Guiteau seemed over the top in the theater, but the characterization is riveting on disc. Listen to O'Hare in "Gun Song," almost giggling with charismatic glee as he points the barrel at the audience and notes how "Everybody pays attention" when one is armed. Gemignani's Hinckley is disarmingly unremarkable, a mixed-up kid whose normality makes him that much more credible. You might want to skip Mario Cantone's Samuel Byck monologue, five minutes of ranting and screaming. It's an incisive cameo of a distraught loner in the age of Nixon but it's also extremely strident and unpleasant -- and, by that point in the narrative, we've certainly gotten the point of how these misfits turned deadly.

This recording differs from the original Off-Broadway cast album of Assassins in a couple of important respects. First, there are Michael Starobin's new orchestrations, crisply conducted by Paul Gemignani. They're superb, with a distinctly American sound, and so clearly articulated that you can hear pretty much every instrument. There's also a new song: "Something Just Broke," a choral number in which ordinary folks react to the Kennedy assassination. Quietly intense and suffused with grief, it gets us away from the collection of loonies for a moment and gives us a touchstone of humanity that Assassins would otherwise lack. It's good to be back among recognizable human beings for one track.

About an hour in length, the CD contains roughly two-thirds of the stage show, complete with potentially speaker-shattering sound effects: shots, the clicking of triggers, the spinning of gun barrels, the buzz of an electric chair, the loud roar of a plane (but still not as loud as Mario Cantone rasping along with it). Combine all of this with a lavish booklet containing the complete lyrics to the songs and many color photos, plus a Weidman essay, and you have a pretty thorough souvenir of the Roundabout production. Well received and the winner of five Tony Awards, the show still closed after 101 performances at a substantial financial loss. That may be due in part to the unsettling subject matter, its uncompromising treatment, and the tendency of Sondheim shows to shutter once his core audience has been exhausted. Arguably, in this case, it's also due to inherent flaws in the material -- once you've filled the stage with angry American losers bent on Presidential homicide, how much more message is there to impart and where is there to go? Still, this is a rich, varied score with moments of humor and lyricism among all the dysfunction and destruction. It may never receive a finer rendering than it does here.

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