Review: In Assassins, Presidential Killers Throw an Opposition Party
Some shows have been marooned by the pandemic. A becalmed production that drifts into a squall can easily capsize (The Visitor is this season's most spectacular shipwreck). But other shows are made of sturdier stuff and have sailed into our post-pandemic, post-George Floyd, post-Trump world even stronger than they would have been in the spring of 2020. The Classic Stage Company revival of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical about the killers and attempted killers of American presidents, is that kind of show.
In fact, Assassins has only appreciated in value since its 1990 debut, when it was largely drowned out by the crash of the Berlin Wall and the roar of F-15s over the Persian Gulf. The victors of the Cold War, living as they were at the end of history, didn't care to hear the musicalized perspectives of the freaks and losers who had so thoroughly failed in America that they felt their only recourse was to shoot the president. "Assassins'' was better received in its 2004 Broadway debut, but even that production had to be postponed several years in sensitivity to the events of 9/11 (it was originally slated for November 2001). This off-Broadway revival, which I have been eagerly anticipating since the fall of 2019, was also postponed, but that has worked in its favor: In 2021, the show's proximity to trauma (specifically the attempted assassination of multiple members of Congress on January 6) makes it feel all the more urgent and vital.
The show takes place in an ethereal shooting gallery in which the proprietor (Eddie Cooper) sells firearms to the assassins and urges them to shoot the president. Starting with John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), they tell their stories, often competing against a boyish balladeer (Ethan Slater) in a vain effort to control their own legacy: Booth wants us to know that he killed Lincoln to avenge his lost country, but isn't it a better story that he did it because he was a frustrated actor coming off a string of bad reviews? Certainly, the balladeer's song is catchier.
Sondheim (who penned music and lyrics) brilliantly employs pastiche to tell the story of individuals drowned in the riptide of American culture. For instance, Calabrian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Wesley Taylor) sings a tarantella to tell us about the crippling stomach pains that provoked him to shoot at Franklin Roosevelt, but we struggle to hear him over five witnesses singing their brassy recollections to a jaunty Sousa march ("How I Saved Roosevelt").
Those bystanders are played by an excellent group of actor-musicians, a hallmark of director John Doyle. They include Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, Brad Giovanine, Katrina Yaukey, and Bianca Horn (who twirls a mean baton). Collectively, they represent the normal, happy Americans — the kind who don't want to kill the president and are generally sad when someone else does.
An all-star cast portrays the principal murderous misfits: Brandon Uranowitz is severe as Leon Czolgosz. He seems to have an entire movie about the assassination of William McKinley projecting through his haunting gaze. Tavi Gevinson plays Squeaky Fromme with the confidence of a true believer. Judy Kuhn is hilarious as the clumsy Sara Jane Moore. Will Swenson endows the delusional Charles Guiteau with twitchy mania, connecting with nearly every audience member like he's Hillary Clinton at a fundraiser — but with just his eyes. Andy Grotelueschen plays Samuel Byck, reciting the would-be Nixon assassin's two monologues like a stand-up comedian accustomed to delivering racy material. He's so convincingly straightforward, that I found myself wondering, Is the lunatic in the Santa suit actually making sense?
The most convincing of them all is Booth, played by Pasquale with icy refinement. He's not only the founding member of America's assassins club, but also its most successful recruiter, goading his disciples on with his satanic powers of persuasion.
The production is not without flaws: The theater suffers from serious sound balance issues, with the music occasionally drowning out the lyrics (a grave matter in any musical, but especially in wordy Sondheim). Doyle's staging also exudes a frustrating inertia that shouldn't exist in a musical so tightly written. Some of that derives from spatial awkwardness, as the actors move from one boxy formation to another, like trainees in a marching band. This may be meant to convey the stifling, militaristic conformity of American society, but it only convinced me that Doyle needs to meet a good choreographer (none is credited here).
Doyle is more successful in his command of design: An American flag is painted onto the thrust stage (designed by Doyle), and the space instantly transforms under Jane Cox and Tess James's dramatic lighting. The sound of realistic gunshots repeatedly caused the people around me to flinch (sound design by Matt Stine and Sam Kusnetz). Steve Channon's projection design helps tie the assassins to their victims by projecting their pictures on a presidential-seal-turned-bullseye hanging above the stage. Ann Hould-Ward costumes the actor-musicians (that is to say, the happy Americans) in red, white, and blue jumpsuits, as if they are all part of the same cult. And maybe, in the view of someone like Czolgosz or Booth, they are — we all are. Or, at least, anyone fortunate enough to be sitting in the audience of an off-Broadway show.
Assassins raises big questions about the American dream and its discontents. In his review of the original production, Frank Rich wrote about Sondheim's conviction that political violence will occur as long as the have-nots are ignored by the "prosperous majority." But what happens in this country when the majority can no longer be said to be prosperous?
The violent dissident strain exemplified by the characters in Assassins has not yet triumphed over American civil society, but it has never been more powerful or popular. According to a recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute, three in 10 Americans are now open to using violence to achieve their political goals. So as the assassins sullenly don their American flag masks in the closing moments of this revival — a reminder of the unhappy status quo in our increasingly dysfunctional union — we know that it's only a matter of time before they appear again. That makes this year, and I sadly suspect much of the foreseeable future, a perfect time for this dangerously prescient musical.