Last month, when uproar broke out over the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar,” I became concerned about whether City Center’s concert revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical “Assassins” may meet a similar fate. After all, the production history of “Assassins,” which examines the individuals who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) presidents of the United States, has been marked by brushes with politics.
The original Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons coincided with the Persian Gulf War, which may have contributed to its cool reception from critics at the time. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which intended to present the musical on Broadway in 2001, postponed the revival to 2004 following the tragic events of 9/11.
The argument made against “Julius Caesar” at Shakespeare in the Park (in which the title character resembled Donald Trump) was that by turning Caesar into Trump, it somehow promoted violence against the U.S. president. Of course, in the play Caesar’s assassination leads to chaos, civil war and the end of the Roman Republic. As such, any argument the production somehow promoted violence was misguided.
Similarly, “Assassins” does not promote violence. Rather, it is a critical-minded examination of the assassins as complex, disillusioned individuals and the cultural forces that (in the authors’ view) contributed to their acts. These range from self-entitlement to economic inequality to easy access to guns.
The musical begins in an eerie fairground setting. The Proprietor, a sort of carnival barker, reaches out to the assassins (such as John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, Samuel Byck and “Squeaky” Fromme) and promises that they can get over their disappointments in life and achieve their goals through acts of presidential assassination. In a nonlinear fashion, the musical then observes the historical characters in conversation and their violent ends.
The Balladeer, a Woodie Guthrie-style folk singer, occasionally offers narration from a point of view of sunny optimism that the assassins find hard to stomach. In the climactic, dissident and chilling song “Another National Anthem,” the assassins conclude that even if they cannot achieve their personal goals, the fact that their acts of violence can shake up the country is satisfaction in and of itself. From there, they pay a visit to Lee Harvey Oswald and urge him to shoot John F. Kennedy, thus reaffirming their counterculture of violence.
The production is directed by Anne Kauffman, who is associated with contemporary dramas presented Off-Broadway. She recently made her Broadway debut with the Roundabout revival of “Marvin’s Room.” She has enlisted a solid cast including Steven Pasquale (Booth), Steven Boyer (Hinckley), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore). Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz) and Cory Michael Smith (Oswald).
Compared with the Broadway-style productions of the main Encores! series, “Assassins” is being done in concert-style, with actors often using handheld microphones or holding scripts. The minimal set design evokes a shooting gallery, with an overhanging metallic grid on which shooting targets are placed. The 13-person orchestra (using the orchestrations from the 2004 Broadway revival) sits above the cast.
Kauffman made a lot of choices that I disagree with, such as encouraging the actors to scale down the tone of their performances. Ethan Lipton gives a weak portrayal of The Proprietor, as a ghoulish lounge singer who could not possibly have had any power of persuasion over the characters. Clifton Duncan is overly jocular and silly as the self-assured Balladeer. At the performance on July 12, the sound design was erratic. This is a difficult and challenging musical that works best in an intimate venue — one where the assassins can literally look audience members in the eyes. As such, it was never going to work perfectly at City Center.
For the most part however, this is a potent staging of a groundbreaking musical that contains many great performances — and I would urge anyone who appreciates serious musical theater or cultural dialogue to check out the production.
People ought to come out of “Assassins” thinking that a serious debate is needed about gun accessibility, the promotion of violence to children (a point that Kauffman nails brilliantly at the very end), mental health issues and how people react to feelings of hopelessness and lack of opportunity.
For the record, I did not see any protesters outside of City Center on July 12. And if any should actually show up before the limited run ends on Saturday, they should know that among Sondheim’s numerous awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received 25 years after “Assassins” premiered.
“Assassins” plays at City Center as part of its “Encores! Off-Center” season through July 15., 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org