Book by John Weidman
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Joe Mantello
Studio 54

Reviewed by David Spencer

Well, this is more like it, and isn’t it interesting—the "it" being the groundswell of mainstream acceptance for the John Weidman/Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins", whose subject matter, as advertised, is derived from the stories of successful and would-be presidential assassins.

Fourteen years ago it wasn’t so.

Fourteen years ago, the reviews were mostly negative. You couldn’t get near the limited run at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway, but plans to move it to Broadway started to disintegrate in the wake of a critical response that—for the most part, with a few riveting exceptions—simply didn’t get it.

Or maybe it simply wasn’t the show’s time. The Republicans were about to lose to Bill Clinton, hope was on the upswing, and if you said 9/11, you were either intoning the emergency phone number, or getting the name of a convenience store chain wrong. But look at the world now, and who leads the free part of it. Indeed, O.J. had to be acquitted before "Chicago" could become an international phenomenon. Even "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", the first of the two one acts in my own "Weird Romance" (written in collaboration with the Alans Menken & Brennert) has been invigorated by the prevalence of spin doctoring and product placement; during talk-backs at the recent York Theatre concert reading, the audience kept remarking upon how prescient it was.

And what could be more timely now, more right, than a show with a wickedly funny book, and a savagely passionate score, that seems to say, "There is something out there, a sickness at the core of the American dream. It starts with impotence, it grows with rage, it ends with a bullet. Enjoy."

This new, bracingly acted production, at Studio 54, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre, directed by Joe Mantello, is a more thematically cohesive and (surprisingly) moving one than the original that was directed by Jerry Zaks. At that time, Zaks and the authors saw the show as a dark revue. Now, though, it has more of a through-line—a reshaping more in the direction than in revisions to the material—that (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless notably) borrows the gestalt energy of "A Chorus Line" in presenting a group (the assassins) that is after one single thing, each in their own way: the validation of recognition. It’s hard to pinpoint, after only one viewing of the revival, precisely how this difference is achieved, as the theme has always clearly been a part of the material…but in the abstract I can, I think, say this: Zaks presented a historical collage of disenfranchised loners whose deeds were done, already acknowledged history, being re-enacted for us. Mantello, on the other hand, has infused everything with the sense that it’s all active, a present pursuit. This time the carnival shooting gallery barker who importunes the assassins in the opening number, "Come on and shoot a President," isn’t wry, laid back and observing smugly—though William Parry’s delivery of that interpretation was delectable. No, in the revival, as personified by a bald, devilishly goateed Marc Kudisch, the barker is flat-out Mephistophelean. And as if to balance the force of evil, the Balladeer is also no longer an observing commentator, as originally personified by Patrick Cassidy. No, at Studio 54, Neil Patrick Harris (whose musical theatre chops keep getting better and better) is an equally active commentator, trying to get the assassins to understand and embrace the American dream upon which the country was founded. Though in time it is his spirit that transforms, and he morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald. As well, Mantello has chosen to stage things on a unit set (Robert Brill), a carny nightmare, distorted and surreal, further unifying the proceedings.

The Sondheim score reflects the popular music history of the nation…but the Americana is razer-edged, more of a taunt, meant to provoke its disenfranchised anti-heroes than inspire. Those of you with good ears and an affinity for Sondheim’s musical gamesmanship will "note" that subtly, underneath a variegated palate, every tune in the score is based on a perversion of "Hail to the Chief." And it informs a darker American voice that will not be stilled.

In the barn where his life will end, John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris) sings, "Hunt me down, smear my name, say I did it for the fame, / What I did was kill the man who killed my country…"

Singing from the electric chair, would-be slayer of FDR Giuseppe Zangara (Jeffrey Kuhn) blames the capitalist system for the burning pains he’s had in his stomach ever since he was a six-year-old child laborer. James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau (Denis O’Hare) faces his end—the gallows, to which he does a sprightly cakewalk—with somewhat more cheer, convinced he did right. ("I am going to the Lordy / I am so glad"—is how the refrain starts; astonishingly enough, the entirety of its first stanza, and a good deal of the subject matter that follows, comes from a rambling, repetitious poem Guiteau wrote and the recited from the scaffold.)

There is a sort of tender moment too, if you can find tenderness in a pop-rock ballad about obsessive love, that of John Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani) for Jodie foster, and Squeaky Fromme (Mary Catheriner Garrison) for Charles Manson.

In the close harmony of barbershop quartet, Booth, McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (James Barbour), Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker) and Guiteau praise the glories of the gun: "All you have to do is move your little finger…and you can change the world."

For patriotism, try the bright, disturbing dissonance of the whole group, led by the barker—as the balladeer tries to argue—that there’s "Another National Anthem" and it’s "not the one you hear in the ball park."

Not to shortchange Mr. Weidman’s book, in which the various gun toters alternately play out scenes from their lives and intermingle with each other, unfettered by the logic of time and chronology. Hence Charles Guiteau can give a lesson in marksmanship to the wannabe killer of Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore…there can be angry group debates about motives and objectives…and a climactic scene in which Booth and the rest of his future "disciples" implore Lee Harvey Oswald to insure his, and their, immortality, giving entirely new dimensions to the Kennedy conspiracy theory.

Do I have caveats? A few mild ones. I think Mario Cantone’s portrayal of Sam Byk (the guy who tried to—it sounds so much less incredible now—hijack a 747 to crash into the White House and thus kill Richard Nixon) seems out of hand at times, shrill rather than explosive. And this particular example may inform a general sense in which the show is a little less funny than it was in the 1990 production (this is not a matter of taste or arguable memory; I have a few bootleg recordings of the engagement that I referred to; there were more laughs and hotter ones). And I don’t think the more sober reaction is as much a product of the times as it is a consequence of Jerry Zaks simply having exercised a better ear & eye for comedy nuance than Mantello’s. Overall, Mantello gets the big picture righter for the piece, and has staged and conceived it beautifully. But I do miss the fine points of timing, diction and gesture that allow each important turn of phrase to land properly.

But those things aside, "Assassins" still, with gusto, speaks eloquently to what has happened all around us and to us in our country—maybe to the free world at large. And to a greater or lesser degree in us. In refusing to treat its lunatics with disdain…in staying ever harsh, but never mean spirited…it is no less a patriotic manifesto for being a cry for help…and as red-bloodedly American as sour-apple pie…

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