This section will soon be much more than this single essay on a production of Assassins I saw recently. Check back soon and take part in a massive undertaking dedicated to the people, history, psychology, and other aspects related to Presidential assassins and the musical that was a result of them...

My Thoughts on "Assassins"

Let me admit some of my backgrounds and biases right off the bat. I have seen and heard archive recordings of the workshops and original production of "Assassins" Off-Broadway. In addition to that, I have seen six live regional productions of varying professionalism, and have read countless papers, reviews, and discussions of various productions of "Assassins." "Assassins" was the first of Sondheim's works that I saw live (outside of productions of "West Side Story," "Gypsy," and the like). I hold the show very dear to my heart and have wanted to be involved in a production of my own since I saw it the very first time. Because of this, I am jealous of every production I've seen and heard of. I am, admittedly, very jealous of The Venus Rising Company for doing what I've been intending to do for many years, produce theatre that very few others are willing/able to produce. I'd like to go one step further that Venus Rising, however. I'd like to produce them well.

I'd like to clarify and correct some of the things mentioned in Richard Connema's review of the Venus Rising production. This production of "Assassins" used ten, not the reported nine, of the eleven songs written for use in this work. This production used nine of the ten songs used in the original off- Broadway production of "Assassins" plus the added song, "Something Just Broke," performed in this production with minimal to no orchestrations for some unfortunately odd reasons. In addition, I'm not sure if Richard was late to the performance he attended, was confused about what he was seeing, or if he saw a completely different production from the one I saw the evening of March 3rd, but the production did in fact begin at the time advertised and the first ten minutes of said production consisted of a semi- improvised "Columbine" classroom scene in place of the song/scene written originally for the production entitled, "Everybody's Got the Right." I do find it quite disconcerting that Richard announced that he reviews for Talkin' Broadway "more on the production values then meanings of the play."

A very interesting thing to note about "Assassins" is that much of the dialogue comes from historical records. When Guiteau sings "I am going to the Lordy," he is singing a poem that Guiteau actually wrote just prior to his execution. The actor playing John Hinckley in this production really did look the part, he sang it well to boot, but did he realize that John Hinckley's mother's nickname was Jody? This brings a whole new additional meaning to his lyrics in "Unworthy Of Your Love." Byck really did record his "rants" to the very people we see he makes them to in the production. In researching this show I see more and more of these little historical details that have found their way into the script and for that reason alone we must always pay attention to the text and dedicate ourselves to it.

While I applaud the director of this production for "thinking outside the box" and coming up with the interesting concept of Columbine to place on top of "Assassins," this show is not about Columbine. I encourage the production's director to take his ideas about Columbine and, perhaps, create his own new work in this vein. I am offended that he chose to do such a thing with an unrelated finished piece of theatre. The first rule of directing is to trust the material and to always be true to the text. This doesn't mean theatre must never change and cannot be reinterpreted. It does mean the director needs to do his share of work to allow both to happen in harmony. The director of this production gave his directorial vision much more importance than that of the desire of the authors. Sondheim has said that of all of his works he feels that "Assassins" is the one he would not be interested in modifying. Whether or not this is true, it is in no way the responsibility of a regional production to manipulate the production in such a manner. That said, it is indeed quite possible to make a statement about violence in today's society and school shootings without being untrue to the text. If you trust the text to say what it has to say about violence, you can then trust your audience to draw the various connections. The director of this production of "Assassins" unfortunately trusted neither.

Even more offensive than the director's choice to project a concept on top of the show was his deliberate decision to delete a section of the work; not just any section, mind you, but the opening song/scene, "Everybody's Got the Right" and the carnival atmosphere that the scene projects on the rest of the evening. "Assassins," when directed as it was written, is a work about "The American Dream." In the song/scene, "Everybody's Got the Right," cut from Venus Rising's production, a carnival barker at his shooting gallery pleads his case with each of the assassins to "C'mere and kill a president." It is this number, along with "Another National Anthem" much later in the work, which most clearly portrays the musical's claim that the American Dream is not just dead, it was assassinated. The very act of murdering the Dream was a direct outgrowth of the ideals of that Dream.

In the after show talk, the director of Venus Rising's production spoke about this song/scene and explained that he felt it didn't work in the original production because he felt it turned off the audience from the get go. The whole point of the carnival is to show not only how messed up the assassins were, but how seductive the dream is. The production's director also explained that the theatre's bureaucracy demands that a show have an intermission if it runs any longer. Ironically, he chose to replace the opening number with a scene that he wrote and devised himself which took much longer than the song he deleted and worked much, much worse.

The structural and thematic integrity of "Assassins" depends on this opening number. "Everybody's Got the Right" not only sets up the text thematically, it additionally introduces the musical themes to follow. The director's dislike for the opening number, in that he feels it turns off the audience from the beginning, is the very reason why he should have used it. The audience should and does feel in the beginning as if each of the assassins were crazy, mixed up, dangerous and bad people.

One of the fascinating aspects of "Assassins" is that in an hour and a half it forces the audience to see just how wrong they were. The amazing thing about the work, if directed correctly, is that the audience only realizes what they're learning at the very end, when it's too late. The change in momentum is one of the reasons I dislike the added song, "Something Just Broke". That doesn't mean I wouldn't use it. But if there was ANY song to delete for time or other reasons the song to snip is "Something Just Broke." I believe organizations have the option to cut this song, though I am not positive.

Without "Everybody's Got the Right," audience members aren't prepared for the convention of all of the characters existing together on some alternate plane. If it happens in the first scene, as it would have with the inclusion of the opening number as an introduction, the convention is set; without that convention, it doesn't make much sense at all for people from different time periods to be interacting the way they do in "Assassins." A friend I went with to this production, unfamiliar with the work prior to attending the performance, was very confused for quite some time as to who was who since she was never informed previously that the people in the scenes were in fact assassins. Many of the songs and scenes were written to be performed in this carnival setting by assassins, but when the production was placed it in the setting of a high school with the students already introduced singing the songs, many audience members were left hanging, unable to understand what was happening.

One of the excuses given by the director for cutting the "Everybody's Got the Right" from his production was that the theatre powers that be would have required the addition of an intermission if the production ran any longer. If they needed to cut time why the heck did they ADD the 10 minute improvisational Columbine scene at the beginning in place of a much shorter opening number that works very well in the first place?

This production's cast was a very talented crew in all respects. Had they been less talented I would have chalked my dissatisfaction up to a hopeless production but it was generally not the performances that weakened the production. This is a show for actors who sing well and not singers who act. The director must strive to get honesty and the truth out of his actors in this show. There is quite a bit of comedy but it must not be milked. The comedy comes out of truth. Byck's monologues are priceless and Kevin (Byck, also the director and founder of Venus Rising) did a good job with them. He could have been one hundred times more effective, however, if he didn't treat his performance as a stand up comedy routine and instead found the honesty and truth in what he was saying and feeling. Sam Byck saw that there were fundamentally corrupt aspects of the American political machine and truly felt that if he guided a plane into the White House and killed Nixon that he would be that much closer to fixing the existing problems! The comedy is in the fact that he felt his actions would help. The tragedy is that he felt his actions would help. Guiteau really was a lawyer, writer, had aspirations to be an ambassador, etc. He was not a comedian. He did not do shtick. In Venus Rising's production, he came off like a cartoon character. Better directed, the character could have acheived much more.

In life most of us have passed by homeless people who probably could have used some psychological treatment. They act relatively "crazy" and often times do funny things. The truth is that such people are not necessarily comedic at all. They are tragic. Guiteau was a tragic man whose life began and ended in tragedy. He truly believe what he said and in what he did and this truth is morbidly amusing. It was certainly not portrayed as such in this production. Instead, he came off as simply nuts: an engaging wacko. The audience should be momentarily drawn towards him, but it's important that he be too much to deal with and therefore drive one away a bit at the same time. There should exist a constant push and pull with Guiteau. Life isn't black and white. Guiteau wasn't simply wacko.

"Assassins" is a musical about ideas. It is by no means a performance of stand-up comedy. The universality of these people's pain and dreams is powerful. This is a psychological study of life. Life is comedic at times but is not played as a 24 hour late night comedy program. This production played up each and every possible moment for a laugh when a great many of these moments would have played that much better if they were allowed to be truthful instead of forced into comedy. "Look at me, I'm funny" is not the most effective way to act. Even in a comedy. Especially in a comedy. The text must be trusted. The actors and actresses should never let the audience know that they find their given characters to be funny. The humor in "Assassins" is much more effective when the text is presented with as much sincerity and passion as possible. At that point, that Squeaky cannot see how insane Charlie is and Sara Jane and Guiteau can't see how unstable they appear makes the situations presented inherently funny.

In his book, "From Assassins to West Side Story," Scott Miller points out that the great strength of Assassins, if done as it is intended, is the ability to "make fully drawn human beings" out of the cardboard cutouts we've read about in the footnotes of history books. He goes on to explain the irony of historie's depiction of the assassins with the example of President Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, "This is not a madman. [Booth] is a man who loves the U.S.A. and can't bear to see it divided and its citizens murdered in a bloody war. Many historians have commented that had Booth killed Lincoln two years earlier, he might have been hailed as a hero."

In the School Book Depository scene, Booth explains to Lee Harvey Oswald that he has "the power of Pandora's Box..." With one small act, pulling the trigger of a gun, by moving his "little finger" all of the assassins are brought together physically and spiritually. In "The Assassination of America" Anthony DiSanto describes this moment being the one in which "all of the musical's fragments have coalesced into a chilling vision of trampled dreams and corrupted innocence, of evil reaching out to evil, of that underside of American existence we would all rather ignore standing up and shouting, 'No! I am here, I exist, and I am not going to go away!'" The Venus Rising production sidestepped any controversial or slightly psychological aspect of the work and instead appeared to instead shout, "We're odd. We're funny. Laugh all you want, we'll make more!" That's all well and good when you're putting on the six millionth production of "Bye Bye Birdie" but one would assume that if they did in fact do such a thing they wouldn't set it in the halls of Columbine High!

Next on the boards for The Venus Rising Company is "Pippin," ironically another theatre work dear to me (in addition to "Falsettos," "A Chorus Line," "Cabaret," and "Merrily We Roll Along"), and that alone disturbs me of the production's prospect of success. Will "Magic To Do" be deleted from his production because it's, if directed well, inherently creepy and might upset the audience's sensibilities? Let's hope not.

Finally, though I have inherent problems with Richard Connema's review, which he admits is based on production value, a production that places no value on the text and audience may very well deserve to be reviewed as such.