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Ready or Not, Here Comes Assassins

Filichia wonders whether or not Broadway is finally ready for Sondheim and Weidman's controversial Assassins. logo
Michael Baker and Joe Jung in Assassins
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
As I approach the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Playhouse, where Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins is playing, I think of what happened nearly two years ago.

You may recall that we were supposed to see Assassins on Broadway in late 2001 but the tragic events of September 11 forced a postponement. At the time, I asked readers if they thought stalling the production was a good idea. Dozens thought it wasn't. Chris Van Ness wrote, "Of course Assassins should be produced. Any people who begin to be afraid of themselves will soon be afraid of everything. Let's stand up for who we are -- the glorious and the defamed. You can't march into battle on tiptoe. Besides, the media will persist, ad nauseum, in showing us everything they can find to remind us of the carnage; it's our job(s) to turn it all into art so we might better be able to understand the darker side of who we all are." Nick Montesano agreed: "It's important to most of us ordinary people to try to understand what drives one to madness."

Still, by a three-to-one margin, most readers thought Assassins should be postponed. Wrote Susan Berlin, "The determining factor, in my opinion, is Sam Byck's monologue in which he describes doing to the White House exactly what the terrorists did to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It's such a blatant parallel, I don't know how audiences would cope." Eric Hurst agreed: "The treatment of Sam Byck alone is infinitely more disturbing today. It would be tough to find humor in Byck's plan to crash a plane into the White House these days." Andrew Thomas felt that "It serves no purpose to open a show just to prove that artists as free-thinking individuals will not be controlled or limited only to have the show fail, which in the current climate is almost guaranteed." Joe Tropia wrote: "It's going to take a while to rebuild the national spirit, and until that time, I simply do not believe that the majority of the holiday and winter theatergoers will have the desire to challenge themselves with this difficult and fascinating musical."

Then there was Sam Kerr Lockhart, who opined that "The show should not be produced -- because it's a lousy show. It's dull, self-congratulatory, jejeune, and contains Sondheim's worst score. The big dramatic point of the show is that assassins or would-be assassins are sick people who want attention and wanting attention is very American. Big damn discovery. And the show has nothing else to say. The best track on the CD is 'November 22, 1963' and it's all dialogue. The best scene in a musical has no music?"

November 22, 1963 -- the date on which Lee Harvey Oswald may or may not have assassinated John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. Like every American who was around at the time, I remember it well. JFK was a god to me while he was president. We were both Roman Catholics from Massachusetts -- though his family was, needless to say, far richer than mine. So that fateful day was one of the bleakest in my life, and watching "November 22, 1963" at Playwrights Horizons 28 years later was still harrowing as John Wilkes Booth along with other assassins and would-be assassins surrealistically showed up at the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot the president. How well I remember the potent silence of the audience as the scene unfolded. When Oswald actually took the shot, I saw my buddy Thom Sesma's hands involuntarily leap up and cover his face in horror -- and he wasn't the only one.

In another Sondheim show, Gypsy, Rose tells us that if you've got a big finish, they'll forgive you everything. Well, Assassins certainly has a big finish, and we'll see if the audience forgives Sondheim and Weidman for the rest of it. Judging from the people I see walking into the Unicorn, I suspect they're not going to take to the show. It's an older audience and a cane is seen in many a theatergoer's hand. I'm reminded of the Assassins I saw at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1995. As the cast was singing "Another National Anthem," four elderly women in the middle of Row D decided that they couldn't take these madmen one second longer. They began to leave and when the talented kids saw this, they played directly to them -- increasing their volume, intensifying their craziness, staring them down, stalking them, keeping pace with the ladies step for step until the poor souls were out of their row and stumbled up the aisle. Imagine what they would have thought had they stayed to see "November 22, 1963!"

At the Unicorn, the show is done in a three-quarter thrust setup that allows me to look at many audience members' faces as they watch the show. I see them appreciatively laugh at "You want to shoot a president?" (Maybe George W. Bush's honeymoon is indeed over.) They listen intently to such lines as "How the union can never recover. Never. Never. Never. Never." Two years ago, this would have been unbearable. Similarly, back in the fall of 2001, I do believe that I would have heard intense sobbing at "No, the country is not what it was." Now, I don't.

This is a wealthy audience, so when Czolgosz chides John Hinckley for breaking a bottle by saying that "somebody'll have to make another one," many laugh. But then, when Czolgosz tells of the painstaking work involved in making a bottle, they're contrite. For most of the performance, the audience is so silent that I can hear the sound of my Sharpie taking notes on my pad. There is an audible gasp, though, when we learn that Booth -- who changed history on an April night -- was only "27 years of age."

The cast of Assassins
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
But what of Sam Byck? There's a good, nostalgic chuckle when he says, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts" -- a bumper-sticker phrase that could be found on many a Bay State car in the mid-'70s. There's another chuckle at "I'm gonna drop a 747 on the White House and incinerate Dick Nixon," perhaps because we're in the one and only state in the union that didn't vote for Nixon in 1972. (And don't forget who ran against Kennedy in 1960.) Or do we all take to Sam because an actor named Kasey Mahaffy is so damned brilliant and mesmerizing in the role?

Here comes "November 22, 1963." Booth tells Oswald of "grief beyond imagining." Well, we've had an even greater grief than we could have imagined in 1963: Our tallest buildings were felled and thousands of lives were lost. When Byck says to Oswald, "This Bud's for you," the crowd laughs as if to say, "I don't think the Budweiser Corporation would see this as product placement in the best sense of the word." The most fascinating moment of the show comes soon after Booth mentions Julius Caesar's assassination and Oswald responds with "Brutus" to show that he has heard of this incident. "And they say fame is fleeting," Booth says sarcastically. Ironically, this production does suggest that an assassin's fame is fleeting: When Booth calls on the other assassins to join the party, he mentions "Artie Bree-mer." Actually, the last name of the man who tried to assassinate Governor George Wallace in May, 1972 was pronounced "Brem-mer." So I guess we do at least forget would-be assassins. (The fame of some presidents seems to be equally fleeting; earlier in the show, the audience doesn't immediately recognize that the man who trips when he enters to meet Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme is Gerald Ford. It has been a while since we've heard that name, hasn't it?)

After Oswald shoots out the window, the audience has sad looks on their faces but not repulsed grimaces or hands to faces. Director Timothy Douglas then gives it to them with both barrels, for while the stage directions clearly state that "A slide is projected upstage: The famous photo of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby," Douglas instead offers the equally famous photo of toddler John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting as his father's coffin passes by. We're reminded of yet another tragedy that wasn't even on the horizon when Assassins was first produced.

Unlike what happened in Cincinnati, no one walks out; the audience members seem to agree that, as the song goes, "Everybody's got the right to be different." I notice that the expressions on the faces of those filing out are semi-smiles. These theatergoers seem to enjoy the fact that they've been challenged and that they were able to take it. Many of them are chatting animatedly, and no one seems to be sorry that he came.

Once again, Sondheim turns out to be right: "Hurts a while, but soon, the country's back where it belongs." Two years ago, I wrote, "Someday the world will again be ready for Assassins. You know how parents tell their teenagers who hastily want to get married, 'If it's love, it'll last?' Well, if Assassins is a good show -- and, indeed, it is -- it'll last, and the day will come when it's the right show at the right time. I didn't expect that day to come so relatively soon, but I now believe that it has.


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

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