Friday 12 September 2008


Stephen Sondheim's Assassins has never really enjoyed great commercial success. The off-broadway premiere ran for just 73 performances, despite a strong cast that included Victor Garber and John Wilkes Booth. The revival was dogged by being scheduled to start shortly after 11th September 2001. When it finally arrived in 2004 it ran just 101 performances, though this time round received the critical acclaim it deserves (and 5 Tony Awards).

It has, however, enjoyed much greater success amongst amateurs and on college campuses. This year in Edinburgh punters had two productions to chose from (though they didn't overlap so no comparison is available from Where's Runnicles). This review considers the one from the Durham University Light Opera Group which took place at the Bedlam Theatre. Unfortunately, as no programme was handed out, we are unable to credit any of the cast.

As the title suggests, Sondheim (with book by John Weidman) tells the story of the men and women who have assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a President of the United States of America. The musical opens in a purgatory-like shooting gallery, though in this production it becomes bar, when the Proprietor greets them, persuades them to play and try to kill a president, Everybody's Got the Right, and solve their problems. A balladeer helps link things together and provide narrative, in a manner not completely unlike Britten's Paul Bunyan (though here the balladeer duets with the other characters).

Often very little is known of each assassin as, for example, Booth's (Abraham Lincoln's killer) ballad makes clear - did he do it to slay a tyrant or because of bad reivews? While Booth remains thought provoking, the explanation for Zangara's attempt of Roosevelt is limited to his belly hurting and while "have you tried killing President Roosevelt..... It couldn't hurt" is funny, it doesn't explain things. Of course, it is probably often the case that there aren't explanations and the intent is to challenge the audience, which it frequently does. Such as when guns are pointed at the audience and we are told "when you've got a gun, everybody pays attention"

Czolgosz is much more convincing, but then it is also a better part. His song of the plight of the working man is powerful, and his motivation for his successful attempt on William McKinley at The Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, is one of the strongest songs in the musical. The contrast of the line of "everyone can work their way to the head of the line", which Czolgosz does in order the be in place in the greeting line to shoot him, and yet that he cannot do to get out of his position, is extremely powerful. It is the American dream and the reality for many set next to one another.

It is also at times very funny, such as Samuel Byck's tape recorded message to Leonard Bernstein. Latter he would attempt to hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into Richard Nixon's White House. The two women, Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, both of whom tried to kill Ford, provide a good deal of comic relief, no more so than when Moore has brought her son (hilariously played by the same actor who portrays the Santa costume clad Byck, later the jacket comes off revealing an 'all I want for Christmas is my constitutional rights' t-shirt) to the attempt. Ford, portrayed bumbling, helps them as they drop their bullets.

Charles Guiteau is a real character, alternately a preacher, author and wannabe ambassador to France, requests the honour from James Garfield and kills him when turned down. John Hinckley, who stalked Jodie Foster and then tried to kill Reagan, is also disturbingly portrayed.

The show culminates with assassins complaining that their deeds haven't solved all their problems. This is juxtaposed with the balladeer's defence of America "the mailman won the lottery..... the usher who's a rock star". But he is shouted down and then hounded from the stage.

Having spent most of the musical wondering whether it will tackle Oswald, we see him for the finale, as Booth and the others persuade him to kill Kennedy in order to make all their lives meaningful. It doesn't quite work, or at least didn't in this production.

It is also easy to see why success has been elusive: a musical that sings "Damn you Lincoln" or suggests that "Lincoln who got mixed reviews, because of you John now gets only raves" is not designed to win a popularity contest. In How I Save Roosevelt various average Americans claim responsibility for ensuring Zangara's bullets went wide of the mark, and could be said to mocking them.

I think this is a misplaced view. It is one of the finest, funniest, most compelling and thought provoking musicals I have heard. How then, did the DULOG performance stack up. Well, bear in mind it was entirely new to me going in, so that always puts the bar lower. However, this was a fine performance none the less, not least because the next day it prompted me to go out and buy the two available recordings. I will now, therefore, do the very unfair thing of comparing this amateur group to those professional productions. Actually, it is very favourable.

First up, it should be noted that the accents, both spoken and sung, are beyond reproach, no mean achievement (those responsible for casting Mahagonny in the International Festival take note). The Proprietor in this production seemed more cynical and harsher such than on both recordings, where he seems soft in comparison (though better in the 2004 revival) and less powerful as a result. The balladeer was excellent too, and gave a very similar reading to that on the off-Broadway recording and arguably a more suitable one than the excellent Neil Patrick Harris gave in 2004 (whose voice is less folksy and whose singing voice at times strains ever so slightly, though his overall performance is so good the flaws don't matter too much).

Booth was okay, but couldn't hope to match Victor Garber (as the rival actor in the revival CD also fails to do). Guiteau was wonderfully characterise, as too were Byck and Czolgosz. On the other hand Zangara was less convincing, although in part that is due to the role. Oswald did a good job, not least given he appears cold just ten minutes before the end. The chorus were okay, and well characterised both in the McKinley and Roosevelt scenes, though in the latter their diction was not good enough. In fairness, it is a very tricky song, but the recordings demonstrate it can be done.

All in all, though, this was an excellent production of an excellent work and one well worth checking out. The two recordings are also both well worth acquiring and both needed. Each have some performances stronger than the other. The original has Garber's Booth and the more folksy balladeer. On the other hand the revival has a harder Proprietor, Neil Patrick Harris, a new song (written for the 1991 London performances, and the need to capture America's sorrow at the events and make up for what might be seen as the mocking of the American people in How I Saved Roosevelt) and much more, though sadly by no means all of the text. Indeed, that is perhaps the great reservation of these recordings, there is so much wonderful dialogue omitted from both, such as Byck's message to Bernstein, or Moore and Fromme's various discussions. Still, both can be had for around £5 on Amazon so there's little reason not to own both.

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