ASSASSINS THEN, ASSASSINS NOW By Peter Filichia
Did you catch that marvelous documentary that was available last month?
I’m speaking of “Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ASSASSINS” that Classic Stage Company offered on line.
Check the company’s website and see if the broadcast will be made available again. If it is, grab the opportunity. If it isn’t, well, as Passionella sings in THE APPLE TREE, “That’s what I’m here for” – to give you the details that poured out during the hour-long program about the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman masterpiece.
When ASSASSINS was first announced for Playwrights Horizons in 1990, many would have predicted that it would be soon forgotten and never the subject of a documentary thirty years later. Jerry Zaks, who directed the original production, stated that friends who saw the musical would come up to him after a performance and mew “Jerry, I … enjoyed it … but … it’s about assassins!”
Zaks wasn’t there every night, but the actors were. Many recalled the chill they felt from audiences. This wasn’t a show that got its attendees to joyously clap in rhythm the way that first-nighters at THE MUSIC MAN did when they heard “76 Trombones.”
Instead they witnessed Eddie Korbich as Guiseppe Zangara – Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s would-be assassin – sing while sitting in an electric chair. The button on the number, as the original cast album proves, was the sound of electricity surging through his body.
Korbich recalled that “We were considered anathema. We were called horribly unpatriotic. When you study it, you see that it’s enormously patriotic.”
That’s what Sondheim meant: “It’s about how this country breaks and is resilient – and breaks and is resilient.”
Victor Garber – the original John Wilkes Booth – remarked “It was a very flag-waving audience in those days – and they just weren’t having it.”
And yet, since then, ASSASSINS has had hundreds upon hundreds of productions, even in high schools.
Joe Mantello, who directed the 2004 Broadway production, stated what’s been said many times, many ways: “With Steve’s work, the world has to catch up.”
So audiences at Mantello’s production weren’t as shocked as Zaks’ were. As Garber said, “It was terrifying to try to bring it to life.” About the surreal final scene in which Booth encourages Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President John F. Kennedy – brilliantly captured in toto on the cast album – he said “It blew my mind every time I did it.”
And yet, Garber was glad to be with it “working with arguably the greatest composer in the world.”
(Refreshing, isn’t it, when reading Sondheim described with the adjective “greatest” in front of “composer” when so many have only joined it with “lyricist”?)
Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, ASSASSINS ran a mere seventy-one official performances; thirty years later on Broadway, it did only thirty more. And yet, the man whose name has been attached to WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, COMPANY, FOLLIES and plenty of other classics said “It’s probably the most exhilarating time I’ve ever had putting on a show because it was what it is today: sharp.”
Weidman said “When Steve and I started looking at these characters, it was very hard to find any history books that looked at them as a group or were curious about them as a group. You could read forever about John Wilkes Booth; you could read forever about Lee Harvey Oswald. But otherwise, not so much.”
Sondheim said “They were anomalies – which was the original title of the show.”
Both followed this statement with a laugh, which suggested that Sondheim had made a joke. We’ve all heard the story that he got the idea for the show once he saw the script of a play called ASSASSINS on a desk; the title was enough for him to start thinking of his own musical. Thus, his ever using a different title would seem unlikely.
Zaks theorized why many in 1990 resisted: “I don’t think we were living at a time when people acknowledged this existence of this underbelly of American society.”
Now many Americans do. That brought Weidman and Sondheim to discuss “Another National Anthem” which begins with Samuel Byck, President Richard M. Nixon’s would-be assassin, saying “Where’s my prize?”
Said Weidman, “That complaint, that grievance continues throughout the song. ‘They told me I’d get a prize. Where’s my prize? I deserve a prize.’ On January 6th, a lot of people who had been promised a prize – which was the election of their favored candidate for president – were not only denied the prize but they were also told they had been cheated out of it. That produced a violent explosion.”
Sondheim noted that “So many people confuse the right of happiness with the pursuit to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is the democratic or American way; the right to happiness, no.”
Weidman added that “One of the stories that we tell ourselves in the United States is that social mobility and upward mobility is essentially available to everybody and to an unlimited extent. If you want to be better than you are and it’s not working out, either somebody’s holding you down or there’s something wrong with you.
“It’s easier to think that somebody is holding you down.
Serious as the documentary is, it did offer some fun tidbits, too. On closing night in 1991, each cast member received a silver bullet as a gift.
An aside: TV audiences throughout much of the fifties watched THE LONE RANGER, about a vigilante who would only load his gun with silver bullets. Because he would hide his face lest his identity be known, at least one character per episode wound up asking “Who was that masked man?”
In this broadcast, it was John Doyle, who was wearing a different kind of mask – one with which we’ve all become too familiar.
The camera followed Doyle through his empty theater; the poor soul looked lost. And yet, his eyes showed determination that ASSASSINS will open one of these days.
Will Swenson reported that the upcoming Doyle production will have actors playing instruments – a conceit that the director had originated at The Watermill Theatre, sixty miles west of London. However, unlike most Doyle productions where everyone chips in to play the music, none of the assassins will take on these tasks; chorus members alone will play six instruments.
Thus the sound will be akin to the original production where a mere three musicians were employed. You’d never know that from the original cast album, for orchestrator Michael Starobin had eleven times as many musicians at his disposal and wrote brilliantly for each.
For those who assumed that the far more sumptuous orchestra was specifically made for the recording, Jonathan Hadary (who in 1990 played James Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau) made clear that the orchestrations had been written for another purpose: the expected move to Broadway.
That didn’t happen, but the work has many time proved itself worthwhile. As Weidman pointed out, “We have not tweaked it or tinkered with it – at all – for thirty years.”
Both men are proud of what they achieved. Sondheim said “It is very rare as a writer when you have a vision of something and that you reach it. You get close to it, but it’s rare that you actually reach it.
I think we reached it in this.”
Weidman agreed. “We both hit the same vein at the same time. But when the dust had cleared and the writing was finished, it was ‘That’s what we wanted to do and there it is.’”
Nevertheless, he knows that there will be some differences because of January 6th and “the social and political context which will now surround a production. It will be fascinating to see what that conversation is like between a new production and whoever’s in that audience.”
Sondheim agreed that “when all those mass voices come together with that kind of dissonant music, the audience will respond entirely differently from the way they ever have before.”
Doesn’t that make you want to see it even more?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.