Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins [Pleasance Theatre, Islington]

A musical with music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr

Sara Jane Moore – Bronwyn Baud
Giuseppe Zangara – Padraig Breathnach
Lynette Fromme – Marcia Brown
The Proprietor – Paul Burnham
John Wilkes Booth – Martin Dickinson
The Balladeer / Lee Harvey Oswald – Johnjo Flynn
Charles Guiteau – Brandon Force
Leon Czolgosz – Alexander Forsyth
John Hinckley – Bo Frazier
Samuel Byck – Tim McArthur
Emma Goldman – Nova Skipp
David Herold – David Shorter
Ensemble: Mark Philip Compton, Garry Mannion, Aideen McCartney, Angela Nesi, David Shorter & Nova Skipp

The Band: Joe Bunker (conductor & piano), Mike Brazier (drums & percussion), Jack Lowe (acoustic & electric bass), Robert McDowall (guitar & banjo), Abi Lucas (flute, clarinet & alto saxophone) & James Davison (trumpet)

Ray Rackham – Director & Co-Producer
Joyce Lorinstein – Co-Producer
Joe Bunker – Musical Director
Chris Whittaker – Choreographer
David Keefe – Orchestrations Reviser
David Ester – Set Designer
Amy Tapper & Gemma Veicht – Costume Designers
Sebastian Petit – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 25 March, 2012
Venue: Pleasance Theatre, Islington, London N7

It is odd how some shows come about. In the case of Assassins, first staged off Broadway in 1990, its genesis goes back to 1979. In the second volume of his collected lyrics (Look, I Made a Hat) Stephen Sondheim reveals that in that year he was serving on the board of the Musical Theater Lab, “an organisation dedicated to finding and presenting new musicals by unknown writers.” It was a short-lived venture that produced only one (unspecified) show. However, among those submitted was a piece called Assassins by one Charles Gilbert Jr. It featured a Vietnam veteran who, disillusioned by the war, agrees to become a Presidential assassin in the setting of a fairground shooting gallery.

At the time Sondheim was only excited by the title of the piece but, ten years later, when he and John Weidman, who had collaborated with Sondheim on Pacific Overtures, were looking for new ideas, Sondheim mentioned Assassins and they were both fired up with the idea. They sought permission from Gilbert to use his idea and the title which he gave on the understanding that he could still present his show whenever he wished. All they took from his show was the name and the shooting gallery setting. Sondheim and Weidman’s first idea was to cover assassins through the ages: “What we envisioned initially was a kaleidoscope revue of assassins from Brutus through Charlotte Corday via Gavrilo Princip [he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand] to James Earl Ray [killer of Martin Luther King].” But it all became too unwieldy.

The next step was to limit the piece to just American assassins but that also seemed too much of a handful. Then they ran through the assassins of the US Presidents and, as thirteen characters proved too much, they cut some and were finally left with just nine killers or would-be assassins plus their accomplices. The most notorious characters among this group are John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F. Kennedy. The other stories cover Leon Czolgosz who shot William McKinley, Charles Guiteau (James Garfield), Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt, Samuel Byck who planned to hijack a plane to crash-land on the White House and kill Richard Milhous Nixon, Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane More who tried to murder Gerald Ford, and John Hinckley who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

The shape of the show is formed by the setting in the shooting gallery where the Proprietor hands out guns, exhorting his customers to “hit the Prez and win a prize.” The protagonists are introduced in the first song, ‘Everybody’s got the right…’ to be what? The answers are simple: the right to be happy, to have some sunshine, to be different, but mostly to have their dreams. Killing a President is one way of becoming (in)famous and not just for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes. The rest of the show is compered by the Balladeer as we progress through the various stories. For the final scene all the infamous figures from US Presidential history gather together when Lee Harvey Oswald arrives at the Book Depository in Dallas to commit suicide. Instead they urge him not to kill himself but to shoot the President instead. He is the ultimate assassin, the one that everyone remembers now whether they were alive at the time or not. It is, relatively speaking, contemporary history within living memory, an event that shocked the whole world and changed America forever in terms of its vulnerability.

Ray Rackham’s production really gets to the heart and soul of the American nightmare. In a mixture of high drama and ironic comedy the 2nd Company makes the show a genuinely moving experience. It is a company show and there are no weak points. Martin Dickinson is outstanding as Booth, the only one of the assassins to have real cause to kill, because he had a genuine grievance in trying to free thousands of Confederate prisoners of war. Brandon Force as Guiteau is a real fruit cake who wanted to be Ambassador to France but shot Garfield instead. Tim McArthur as Samuel Byck (in Santa Claus outfit) evokes a real madman at large as he tried to bomb the White House but his plane never took off and he killed a guard and a co-pilot instead. As the Balladeer, Johnjo Flynn is a neutral character but when he returns as Lee Harvey Oswald he is a man possessed: a fine double-act combining show-biz pizzazz and undiluted evil.

Sondheim’s music is a pastiche of different American styles of music from Country & Western to ballads, from anthems to jaunty swingalong rhythms. The revised orchestrations by David Keefe include acoustic and electric bass, banjo and guitar, flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, drums and percussion, all of which give the score a truly American feel and appeal. Joe Bunker’s band plays to strength presenting a good, strong and positive sound.

Seeing Assassins again demonstrates how relevant the show and its message are. It reminds us that, as Sara Jane Moore, would-be assassin of Gerald Ford, said: “There comes a point when the only way you can make a statement is to pick up a gun.”

  • Assassins is at the Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Road, Islington, London N7 until Sunday 8 April 2012
  • Tuesday to Friday 7.30 p.m., Saturday 2.30 & 7.30 p.m., Sunday 2 & 5
  • Tickets 020 7609 1800
  • Pleasance Theatre

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