What else would one expect from the man behind one of the bloodiest musicals of all time, “Sweeney Todd,” than another rollicking good time full of bloodlust and murder? Stephen Sondheim did it again with “Assassins,” a controversial musical picked up by the senior music theater majors for one of their seminar pieces.
“Assassins” features all of the major presidential assassins in U. S. history, beginning with John Wilkes Booth up until John Hinkley, attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan.
Director and senior acting major Sarah Pace had to make the assassins believable characters, which meant drive behind their motives. She did extensive of research into the characters and claims it was some of the hardest work she completed during the production.
She said “Assassins” is possibly Sondheim’s most controversial musical. But, “these people need their stories told, too,” Pace said.
“Assassins” is set in a kind of alternate-reality carnival, where assassins and attempted assassins throughout the decades are free to mix and mingle and talk to each other about what makes them tick, or rather, what makes them want to shoot a president. Catering to the crowd at this twisted fair is the Proprietor, played with creepy deadpan by senior Paul H. Miller, who offers guns for sale to one and all.
The carnival feel extended outside of the Black Box Theatre, where cotton candy and other carnival goodies were for sale.
“It’s a piece of Americana,” Pace said. “But a broken America.”
In contrast to the dirty and disjointed scenery, members of the ensemble wore muted tones of white, representing the true America.
The set, lighting and sound were all spot-on when it came to setting the “creepy carnival” atmosphere. Though the music was pre-recorded, it was never overbearing as some canned music can be. All of the lyrics were heard loud and clear, meshing well with the accompanying background music.
All cast members played their parts well, but the standout was Charles Guiteau, assassin of
President James Garfield, played by senior Teddy Scott. Guiteau’s character could be manic one moment and deeply depressed the next, and Scott carried his weight without a single slip-up. Scott’s performance of the dramatic lead up to the eventual hanging of Guiteau made the audience audibly gasp.
John Wilkes Booth, played by senior Christopher Wood, was the antagonist in the carnival. Sneaking up behind the people who would become assassins, he would implore them to make something of their lives, to go down in history — to shoot a president.
The voice of reason was the Balladeer, who sang the stories of the assassins as they were introduced. Played by senior Eric Mann, he offered the glimmer of light many of the assassins missed in their own lives. But, as it is well known, history cannot be changed, and even despite the Balladeer’s pleading, Booth won over all of the assassins — even a reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald.
“Assassins” could well have been a melodramatic piece, but in typical Sondheim style, bits of dark humor snuck through the solemn nature of the subject. One such scene involves Booth and attempted assassin of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Guiseppe Zangara. Zangara, played by senior Roy San Filipo, had a lifelong stomach ailment that made him a cranky, bitter man.
“Your stomach hurts?” Booth questioned. “Have you tried shooting the president?”
“No,” Zangara replied. “Will that help?”
“Well, it can’t hurt.”
Sophomore acting major Amy McNabb said she enjoyed the experience of seeing “Assassins,” and thought the senior class did a great job selecting the piece.
“It really rattles you up,” she said.
On each night of the performance, admittance to the show was difficult to obtain, with lines beginning around an hour and a half before doors even opened. Every night, a substantial amount of students were turned away from the door, a testament to how well the senior seminar class did with the piece they chose.
Despite the touchy subject matter involved, “Assassins” and the senior musical theater seminar pulled off with aplomb what most companies would be too afraid to touch.