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...
Thoughts on "Assassins"
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.
like to clarify and correct some of the things mentioned in Richard
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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!
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.
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