1/21/2023 ASSASSINS Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series
(Sloth Alert: This is the fifth production of this show I’ve seen and the third I’ve written about. Accordingly, I have a nice “background template” available to plagiarize from columns written in 2012 and 2015. Please don’t judge. )
Although our Declaration of Independence lists “The Pursuit of Happiness” as an “unalienable” right (the, word, Mr. Adams, is “inalienable”) , our actual Constitution SemiSortaKinda skirts around the whole happiness issue. Even so, we demand our happiness, and when it doesn’t happen, SOMEONE must be to blame, and SOMETHING must be done!
Which is why, according to John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, thirteen people, successfully or not, have tried to kill the President of the United States. In this play, set in a symbolic limbo of a carnival shooting gallery sideshow, we meet nine of them as they tell us what landed them on the delivering end of a gun.
We know some of them – everyone learns about John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald in school. Those of us of a certain age, easily remember John Hinkley, “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. If we aced American History, we certainly know that Garfield and McKinley were killed in office, but we probably don’t know anything about their killers (let alone how to spell their names). That leaves a few we don’t know, even more who don’t even appear in this show.
Assassins can be very problematic for many people. Does it glorify these misfits at the expense of their victims? Does it try, in a dark way, to justify their actions? Or is it just an exercise in dark comedy, an excuse to get some laughs at the expense of some dead presidents? I can’t help but wonder what Jodie Foster thinks of Hinkley’s song, “I am Unworthy of Your Love.”
As for me, I think the play wants to do something profound – it wants us to look at the dark side of the American Dream through the eyes of a group of people for whom that dream has failed. It wants us to take the extraordinary step of empathizing with “people not like us,” of seeing the human being beneath the skin of the sideshow freak. It wants us to recognize that we are not so very different from the very people we supposedly revile. And it wants to turn that empathy upside-down, making us afraid of these people we were feeling sorry for not two minutes ago.
It's telling that the passions, misconceptions, and loyalties that drove most of these characters are echoed today in “justified violence” arguments from both the left and the right.
Script-writer John Weidman wrote the following shortly after the original 1991 Playwrights Horizon production:
“Thirteen people have tried to kill the President of the United States. Four have succeeded. These murderers and would-be murderers are generally dismissed as maniacs and misfits who have little in common with each other, and nothing in common with the rest of us.
“Assassins suggests otherwise. Assassins suggests that while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar – taken as a group they are peculiarly American. And that behind the variety of motives which they articulated for their murderous outbursts, they share a common purpose: a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed sense of entitlement.”
This is, in fact, one of my favorite Sondheim scores, filled with musical stylings that exemplify the history of American Music. The score itself is pure Americana, reflecting each of the eras that produced an assassin. More to the point, the songs can be funny and chilling at the same time, lyrically provocative as they describe twisted emotions, dark yearnings, and soon-to-be-misplaced passions.
And over-riding everything is the iconic American dream of making the world notice! Attention must be paid! The fact that the witnesses at the attempted killing of FDR are every bit as shallow and attention-craving as the killers themselves is the key to this show, the song that tells us we’re seeing not the marginal and insane, but the there-but-for-fortune-go-I people-like-us.
And, it’s a measure of the strength of this show that, even though this concert version edits out some expected characters and moments (Emma Goldman and Sara Jane Moore’s son), it still works, and I never even noticed the excisions until I was thinking back on what I had just seen. I just assumed I was seeing yet another revised version. (The show was revised in London to add the elegiac “Something Just Broke,” a poignant reminder that these outsiders had actual victims, had a real and lasting impact on the American ethos.)
As usual with Anderson concerts, the strengths of this production were with the cast, the staging, and, especially, the show itself (music/lyrics/libretto). Each character was fully realized to a degree that truly belies the too-short preparation period (one week). Yes there were a couple lyric stumbles and tech miscues, but not enough to really disrupt the flow. Maybe the side show motif got a little short shrift, but, again, subtextualizing that aspect in no way lessened the impact, the drive, or the theme.
Standouts here were … well, everyone. Ithica Tell’s proprietor draws us into the piece with her snake-oil appeal to the potential assassins – a lanky and cheerful Lukas Chaviano as Charles Guiteau, a sullen and thick-accented Claudio Pestana as Zangara*, a bull-headed and obsessive Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Czolcosz (so THAT’S how you spell it), a wide-eyed Chase Sumner as Hinkley, a stoned-out Cameron Scofield as Fromme, an hysterically frazzled Jessica Miesel as Moore, a smooth and debonair Craig Smith as Booth, an unmoored-from-sanity Michael Joshua Williams as Byck, and a lost and empty-souled Jordan Patrick as Oswald. Skyler Brown is our storyteller, the balladeer who tells the story, goads the assassins, then judges them. This group gels into a perfect ensemble of imperfect characters, creating a monolithic tapestry of frustration, denial, and narcissism that serves the histories perfectly.
Director Clifton Guterman stages the piece simply, backing the stage with an oversized Flag (the American Dream writ LARGE, as it were), keeping most of the characters onstage throughout, reining in the cast’s eccentricities to keep them within the bounds of recognizable humanity, pacing the piece to within an inch of a life. Projection Designer Bobby Johnston uses the space well, keeping multiple images on the background flag and the wing walls so we know what the next “victim” actually looked like, effectively “buttoning” the Oswald scene with a clip from the Abraham Zapruder film. This production looked and sounded great.
In the final analysis then, I thoroughly enjoyed (if that is the right word) Assassins, once again hearing songs I've come to know far too well, seeing a talented cast inhabit this particular group of characters. Assassins is a compelling piece of Sondheimiana, a series of strong and wonderful moments that adds up to a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #Assassins #JennieTAndersonConcerts #CirqueDuSlay)
* It has been speculated that Zangara’s real target in Miami wasn't F.D.R., but Chicago Mayor Cermak, whom he did kill – this is based on the fact that Zangara was a marksman in the Italian army and that Cermak had a problem with the Chicago mob. That’s it! That Zangara was never in Chicago, that he was a marksman with a weapon and a distance not used here, that Cermak was killed by the wild spray of gunfire after Zangara’s initial shot at FDR is not, I suppose, relevant to the conspiracy-mongers who apparently think ALL Italian immigrants are part of the mob.
** I’d actually never heard of this guy or his attempt on Nixon until this show came out. Apparently, his failed highjacking (with the resulting deaths of a pilot and a Police Officer) was described to the media as just that – another failed highjacking, lost in a news cycle that was obsessed with Watergate. Apparently, the secret service didn’t want to give anyone any how-to-kill-a-president ideas.
A few interesting trivia notes to enhance your experience:
“Everybody called him Wilkes” because big brother Edwin did not want to allow John’s lesser talent besmirch the grand Booth family theatrical reputation (at least according to Emily McLain’s My Brother’s Secret Keeper staged last year by Pumphouse players).
In truth, it wasn’t Guiteau who killed Garfield, but the doctors who refused to accept the latest findings on keeping infections at bay. Garfield lingered for two months after the shooting and finally died of Sepsis. McKinley’s wound was also described as “non-fatal” with death coming from infection.
John Hinkley Jr was released from Institutional Care in 2016 with a stringent list of conditions. On June 15, 2022, he was granted full and unconditional release from parole. He’s out there!
“Squeaky” Fromme was released from prison in 2009 and published a book about her life in 2018. I won’t be reading it. She’s out there!
Sarah Jane Moore was released form prison in 2007. In February 2019 she was re-arrested for violating her parole but was released in August of that year. She’s out there! But she is also 92 years old.
All the other assassins met not-so-happy ends. Like their targets. Ford and Nixon and Reagan aside. Sort of.
Jessica Miesel, who played Sarah Jane Moore, donned a nurse’s uniform for “Something Just Broke.” She has been a regular cast member as Nurse Jessica Moore for the past several seasons of The Resident.
Sondheim is (apparently) not too proud to quote himself, as lyrics from West Side Story pepper Sam Byck’s first monologue.