Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 excursion into the dark side of U.S. history can be likened to a bad bet, as if someone dared Sondheim and John Weidman (who penned the book) to write a musical about folks who had tried, or had succeeded, in assassinating a U.S. president. Sondheim and Weidman scraped the bottom of their collective boots to turn out a conscienceless song-and-dance routine, spotlighting the nine losers-in-life who have no relevance other than as infamous historical footnotes. Helmed by Cindy Jenkins, this revival fails to generate any new insight or veracity in this flawed tuner.
Staged as a turn-of-the-century carnival sideshow, “Assassins” explores the history of presidential assassination in America, from John Wilkes Booth (Michael Laurino) to John Hinckley Jr. (Lance Kramer). The tone is set in the opening song — “Everybody’s Got the Right (…to shoot a President)” — sung by the Proprietor (Patrick Seitz) as he proceeds to hand out pistols (for a price) to the various ensemble members.
The show’s score is a grab bag of pop melodies, folk songs, ballads, vaudeville and dance-hall tunes, each corresponding to the time period of the individual assassin. None of the numbers are particularly memorable, but they are impressively underscored by a live five-member instrumental ensemble, led by music director-keyboardist Andy Mitton.
President Lincoln’s murderer, John Wilkes Booth, is the first to be spotlighted. Laurino adequately conveys the deranged thesp as a sociopolitical idealist, spouting his incoherent rhetoric, framed by accomplished Balladeer Kyle Nudo’s doubting “Why Did You Do It, Johnny?” The song intimates that Booth’s antisocial zeal might have been spurred on by his bad reviews as an actor; but his deed had the ironic effect of turning the fallible, often maligned-in-his-own-time Lincoln into a sainted martyr.
Weidman’s book takes great pains to humanize all the killers, portrayed with commitment by the ensemble members. There is a poignant exchange between downtrodden worker Leon Czolgosz (Jason Decker) and seminal anarchist Emma Goldman (Rachel Payne) that strengthens Czolgosz’s resolve to serve the workers’ cause by murdering President McKinley (“The Ballad of Czolgosz”).
Supposed comic relief is provided by Gina Torrecilla as klutzy housewife-spy Sara Jane Moore and Juliana Johnson as Charles Manson’s dedicated love slave Squeaky Fromme, playing off each other to the ditsy hilt as they stumble through their individual inept attempts to shoot President Gerald Ford. All efforts to give credence to their innate humanity are submerged under the all-too-real deafening volume of pre-recorded gunshots as these two specters indulge in their carefree target practice (“Gun Song”).
All the assassins have their defining moments. Kramer’s Hinckley and Johnson’s Fromme rhapsodize harmonically (“Unworthy of Your Love”), extolling their crazed obsessions with actress Jody Foster and mass murderer Charles Manson, respectively, as warped justification for their actions. Corey Pepper’s Samuel Byck rages against a society that is justifying his attempt to hijack a plane to fly into the Nixon White House. At least President Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (a charismatic turn by Philip D’Amore) has the decency to acknowledge his own insanity (“The Ballad of Guiteau”).
All themes eventually lead to the ludicrous final scene in the Texas School Book Depository as the entire gallery of assassins plead with suicide-bent Lee Harvey Oswald to commit the act that will validate all of them (“November 22, 1963”), connecting his assassination of President Kennedy with them, with history and with the world.
“Assassins” is not Mt. Everest. It doesn’t have to be done just because it’s there.