Even though Matthew Brennan is directing, choreographing and performing in Encore Musical Theatre’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – which focuses on nine men and women who have tried (sometimes successfully) to kill a U.S. President – he’s having trouble convincing his Aunt Eileen to give the show a chance.
“I recently saw her in Louisville, and she said, ‘What’s next?’ and I said, ‘Assassins,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’ll sit that one out,’” said Brennan. “ … But (the show’s) not at all a glorification of these people. It does not apologize or make light of what they did, and it’s not un-American in any way. (The show’s) just been misconstrued, … and really, it’s written in such an even-handed way. The show doesn’t vilify these people – they do that to themselves. Yet we still find a way of relating to them.”
“Assassins” first premiered Off-Broadway in 1990; and while the show has since become a favorite of many Sondheim and non-Sondheim fans alike, it initially received a lukewarm critical reception.
“It wasn’t that it was groundbreaking in terms of structure, or the piece itself, but the material is not your usual fare for a musical,” said Brennan. “ … And the more modern assassins have a different significance for the audience. It’s more difficult to see Squeaky Fromme or Lee Harvey Oswald on stage if you lived in that time and remember seeing them. With something like ‘Sweeney Todd,’ we can laugh it off as a penny dreadful Victorian myth or folklore, but this is our American folklore. Yes, it’s pretend, because there’s singing and dancing, but we all also have a more visceral response to it.”
The show subverts the laws of time and mortality by bringing together these figures from various eras, including: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau; McKinley’s assasin, Leon Czolgosz; FDR’s would-be assasin, Giuseppe Zangara; Kennedy’s assassin, Oswald; Nixon’s would-be assassin, Samuel Byck; Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley; and Ford’s would-be assassins Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.
Beyond getting a sense of each assassin’s context and personality, we also hear them talking with each other about what they want, and what drives them. Plus, theatergoers seeing the show for the first time will likely be surprised by the role humor plays.
“It’s a warts and all approach,” said Brennan. “ … Looking at it like that is important, because it allows us to see that the people who did these things are like our neighbors, pushed to extreme lengths. … As Americans, we’re capable of anything, but which ‘anything’ are you going to choose?”
Given that “Assassins” comes with myriad challenges, in regard to encouraging patrons to give it a chance, why did Encore add it to its season?
“Partly because of the success we had with ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sondheim on Sondheim,’” said Encore’s programming director, Thalia Schramm. “It hasn’t been on purpose, but we’ve become a pretty Sondheim-y theater company. Which I think is great – I love Sondheim – but we also chose to add the show because in ‘Sondheim on Sondheim,’ there’s a segment about ‘Assassins’ being Sondheim’s favorite show that he’s written, and that it’s the one where he wouldn’t change a thing. The score is great, and companies don’t do it very much, so we had a lot of people come out for it. But it’s also a very political time when we’re talking about freedom of speech, the election cycle, social media – all this stuff makes the show feel more relevant now.”
When depicting a real person, actors have the option of diving into research, but David Moan, who plays Booth, made a conscious choice not to veer too far away from what the script provides.
“Because the show is a bit fanciful, I needed to focus more on what it was telling me about him, or else I was not going to do the piece justice,” said Moan. “If anything, I wanted to know what kids learn about Booth in school, and find out from teachers what they teach about him when they get to this moment in history. … Because in the end, it’s not about knowing who the real Booth was, but rather who Sondheim is portraying Booth as in this context.”
Booth’s role in the show is key, since the other assassins consider him a forefather of sorts.
“There’s a little moment at the end, where Booth and Lee talk about the difference between murder and assassination, and what makes that moment so strong is that you see that their perspective is so [screwed] up,” said Moan. “Whether someone on the street is killed, or a person you feel is messing up the country is killed, someone died. … It’s still murder.”
“Assassins” opens at the Encore Musical Theatre on June 10 and will run through until July 3. For more information or to acquire tickets visit the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s website at the link embedded in this sentence.
Jenn McKee is WeLoveDexter.com’s designated entertainment writer. Her reviews of Encore shows will be published on www.EncoreMichigan.com and referred to here, while her Encore feature previews will be published on this website and referred to on EncoreMichigan.com. For the full view of Encore coverage and more complete Michigan live theater coverage, please visit both sites.