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Assassins in an Election Year

Classic Stage Company is set to mount an off-Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical in 2020.

Alexander Gemignani, Becky Ann Baker, Jeffrey Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, Neil Patrick Harris, Mario Cantone, Mary Catherine Garrison, Denis O'Hare, and James Barbour starred in the 2004 Broadway production of Assassins.
(© Joan Marcus)

On November 3, 2020, Americans go to the polls to select a new president (or to retain the one we already have). Earlier that year, off-Broadway audiences will have the opportunity to see a revival of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical about the handful of Americans who have sought to remove a president by less democratic means.

This week, Classic Stage Company announced a starry cast for the show, which will play April-June next year, ostensibly in time to celebrate Sondheim's 90th birthday. But Assassins will also be performing just as the Democrats choose their nominee to run against Donald Trump, who may or may not be impeached by then.

This Story of the Week will explain what makes Assassins so significant, and why the team behind this revival truly thrills me. Additionally, I will gauge the potential for the show to stir up drama in a political landscape that has no short supply.

Denis O'Hare played Charles Guiteau, Michael Cerveris played John Wilkes Booth, James Barbour played Leon Czolgosz, and Becky Ann Baker played Sara Jane Moore in the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins.
(© Joan Marcus)

What is Assassins?
Highlighting nine of the 13 people who have attempted to kill an American president, Assassins takes the form of a carnival shooting gallery, with the would-be assassins attempting to "shoot a prez, win a prize." It is also a musical revue, with figures like John Wilkes Booth, Giuseppe Zangara, and John Hinckley Jr. singing about what drove them to take aim at the most powerful man in the world. While those individual motivations might have been superficially different, all are fueled by feelings of impotence and a desire to be recognized by a country that has written them off as losers.

The original Playwrights Horizons production opened to mixed reviews in early 1991, amid the patriotic fervor of the Gulf War and the overwhelming popularity of President George H.W. Bush. It has since risen in the estimation of critics and audiences, in no small part thanks to a lavish Broadway mounting from Roundabout Theatre Company and director Joe Mantello. Originally scheduled for fall 2001, it was postponed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. But by 2004, America was a year into another war in Iraq (under another President Bush), and Broadway audiences were far more receptive to the dark ballads of these presidential killers. Assassins won the Tony Award for Best Revival that year.

The most disturbing thing about Assassins is how recognizable the grievances of its protagonists are. Sondheim and Weidman show how the anger of these historical assassins is born from the same idea that convinces their victims to run for president: the notion that happiness is our birthright and that our dreams ought to come true. They sing their rage in counterpoint with the peppy march of the American dream (literally in the scene about Zangara). Assassins is a show that is as challenging musically as it is thematically, and it requires a top-notch team to hit that difficult target.

Who is working on this revival?
Five actors have been announced so far: Judy Kuhn will play Sara Jane Moore (would-be assassin of Gerald Ford), Will Swenson will play Charles Guiteau (successful assassin of James A. Garfield), Wesley Taylor will play Giuseppe Zangara (tried to shoot Franklin Roosevelt, but hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead), and Brandon Uranowitz will play Leon Czolgosz (the anarchist who murdered William McKinley and ushered in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt). Steven Pasquale will reprise the role of John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln's assassin), which he took on in the 2017 Encores! revival (see video above). This is already an impressive list of Broadway performers, and we can expect more to come as further casting is announced.

John Doyle, artistic director of Classic Stage Company, helms the production. Originally from the UK, Doyle had his big breakthrough in New York with the 2005 Broadway revival of another Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. That show was notable for its efficient staging featuring actor-musicians (I will never forget the spectacle of Patti LuPone playing the tuba as Mrs. Lovett).

Doyle brings his distinctive lets-put-on-a-show style to every production; and when it works, it really works, like in last year's revival of Carmen Jones. Of course, his bold choices just as often result in disaster, as was the case with his deadly Peer Gynt. I'm optimistic that Assassins, with its inherent theatricality, will fall in the former category.

John Doyle directs the forthcoming off-Broadway revival of Assassins.
(© Janie Willison)

Will it be controversial?
If everyone does their jobs, yes. Assassins is an inherently controversial show. It's like a grenade thrown into the nonstop cocktail party enjoyed by America's rich and happy — a reminder that there are unhappy Americans too. It pricks our worst insecurities about this country, and invites hostility from those unreceptive to such self-reflection.

Theater rarely makes front page news: The last significant example was the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, which featured a gaggle of senators stabbing a long-tied blonde-quaffed tyrant. Trumpius Caesar became the must-attend event for young conservatives looking to build their street cred by rushing the stage. Will Assassins be the next stop for those eager to secure a booking on Fox News?

Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, and Elizabeth Marvel appeared in the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.
(© Joan Marcus)

I'm skeptical that a show without any obvious Trump references (and I hope that will remain the case) will provoke the sensibilities of the MAGA crowd. Still, the presidential election (and a possible simultaneous impeachment hearing) has the prospect to push the political rancor in America to a fever pitch. Anything that can be politicized, will be — including the idea of a theater full of liberal New Yorkers enjoying a musical about presidential assassination.

It was ever thus in America. If anything, the period of triumphalism in which Assassins made its debut (Cold War won, Gulf War about to be won with minimal sacrifice of blood and treasure) was a historical anomaly. Even the '90s, a decade remembered nostalgically for its safety and prosperity, saw the Waco siege, the Oklahoma City bombing, and a bitter presidential impeachment. If that was our golden age, what are we living through now? The ranks of the disaffected and armed have only grown in the last three decades, rendering Assassins remarkably (and unhappily) prescient.