New York has seen several Sondheim revivals this year, both on and off Broadway. Sunday in the Park With George and Pacific Overtures had runs, and Sweeney Todd is still piling up bodies downtown. Encores! Off-Center has now mounted Sondheim's other murderous musical, Assassins, for a short run at New York City Center — and it is the most thought-provoking and timely of the bunch. Theatergoers who have dodged the show in the past will want to make sure they don't let this production whiz past.
It was a troubling show when it premiered — and it still is, but for different reasons today. When Assassins officially opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on January 27, 1991, audiences didn't know what to make of nine killers singing about their crushed dreams and crazed plots to assassinate presidents. Reviews were mostly negative. A Broadway revival was scheduled for 2001, but the tragic events of September 11 made the show's provocative material too abrasive for a nation in mourning. After a few years, though, Roundabout Theatre Company mounted a revival in 2004 at Broadway's Studio 54, with Neil Patrick Harris as the Balladeer. Audiences and critics reacted enthusiastically to it; by then, theatergoers seemed to be ready for the show's dark comedy and ironic dissection of the American dream.
And now, in 2017, the show's themes align with the nation's desire to figure out where it has gone wrong. Anne Kauffman's production, though it takes a moment to find its footing, ultimately drives home a strong political message with its emphasis not on the nine misfits and malcontents who tried to kill presidents, nor even on the presidents they wanted to kill, but rather on the gun-loving country that brought them into being.
Assassins has no story line to speak of: Nine historical figures — including the likes of John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee), and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey) — mingle and interact with one another, making this less a musical than a revue in which songs are used to tell individual stories. After a shaky rendition of the opening number, "Everybody's Got the Right," in which the Proprietor (Ethan Lipton) invites the assassins to a makeshift shooting gallery of presidents (scenic design by Donyale Werle), things take a more promising turn when the Balladeer (Clifton Duncan) enters for "The Ballad of Booth" and sings, "Every now and then the country goes a little wrong." At the performance I attended, the audience erupted with roaring applause at the word "wrong," halting Duncan and the orchestra's performances for nearly a minute.
Pasquale keeps the energy high with his stellar portrayal of Booth, the "pioneer" of American-president killers, dressed in mid-19th-century attire (spot-on costumes by Clint Ramos). Alex Brightman charges the stage with his Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant who, according to his song, "How I Saved Roosevelt," tried to shoot F.D.R. in order to alleviate his chronic stomach pains. Shuler Hensley gives a Sweeney-esque intensity to his Leon Czolgosz (the man who shot William McKinley in 1901). Conlee's Guiteau is the most "likable" assassin of the group, with his optimistic grin and happy refrain in "The Ballad of Guiteau." As he is about to be hung, he sings, "Look on the bright side, not on the sad side, inside the bad side, something's good." This is Sondheim at his darkly comic best.
With finely combed hair and a creepy glare, Steven Boyer plays a quietly maniacal John Hinckley, who gets laughs when he duets with Markey in the hyperbolic love song "Unworthy of Your Love." Even funnier is Markey's duet with another Gerald Ford wannabe-assassin, Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), as they fire off shots into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Sondheim and Weidman's ironic tone becomes darker as the show goes on. Danny Wolohan, dressed in a ragged Santa Claus costume, gives two ferocious and condemnatory monologues, one addressed to Leonard Bernstein (listen for the misattributed Sondheim lyrics from West Side Story) and Richard "Dick" Nixon. The show's climax comes when the assassins encourage Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith) to make a name for himself by killing J.F.K. ("Another National Anthem") and when the country is shattered by Oswald's crime ("Something Just Broke").
Far from celebrating these men and women, even as it pokes fun at them, Assassins ultimately takes aim at the audience and at a nation that has turned its back on so many of its citizens who, despite America's promise that hard work results in prosperity, never make it to "the head of the line." In the end, Assassins warns us that the children we raise and the beloved guns we refuse to relinquish may ensure that the line of assassins does not end with Hinckley. As the cast reprises "Everybody's Got the Right," the young actor Hudson Loverro enters, stands center stage, and, pointing his gun, fires.