NEW YORK — It must have been a killer reading.
Gotham fans of Stephen Sondheim have endured a very long wait, but the composer-lyricist’s 1991 musical “Assassins” may be coming back to a New York theater sometime soon.
Last week, what is perhaps the darkest work from the musical theater’s darkest talent received a reading under the auspices of the Roundabout Theater, with interest expressed by the Shubert Organization for a future New York production.
“We are in discussions,” Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld confirmed.
Todd Haimes, the Roundabout’s artistic director, said, “It is not planned for any particular time or theater. Frankly, we’ve been waiting to see how the reading went on Friday.”
“I thought it went fantastically well,” said Haimes, whose opinion was shared by other sources not associated with the theater company. “It is a musical that should have a revival, and we want to do it,” he said of the tuner that profiles several presidential assassins and would-be assailants in a revue format.
“Assassins,” with book by John Weidman, had its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons on Jan. 28, 1991, and closed after a limited three-week run. The production was directed by Jerry Zaks and starred Jace Alexander as Lee Harvey Oswald, Victor Garber as John Wilkes Booth, Annie Golden as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Debra Monk as Sara Jane Moore.
Reviewers called the show inventive, uneven and relentlessly pessimistic. “Dozens of shots are fired off, loudly, in ‘Assassins,’ but few of them hit their mark,” wrote Jeremy Gerard in Daily Variety. The New York Times’ Frank Rich, who generally championed new Sondheim musicals, wrote, “While ‘Assassins’ can be applauded for intellectual ambitions unknown to most American musicals, such high intentions, intermittently realized, hardly seem like achievement enough.”
Since its original run at Playwrights Horizons, the musical has received productions in regional theaters but no revivals in New York City.
Haimes credited Joe Mantello, who directed the Roundabout reading, with jump-starting the project in 2000. “Joe is sort of one of our resident directors, and he said he was interested in taking a look at it, and I said great,” Haimes said. Mantello will direct the Roundabout’s winter 2001 production of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living.”
The theater company has skedded Sondheim’s “Follies” for a major production next spring, the musical’s first Broadway revival since its premiere in 1971. Haimes saw no conflict if both Sondheim shows ended up in the same legit season. “I don’t have a problem with it,” he offered. “I don’t definitely know (‘Assassins’) is going to be this season.” Besides, he noted, “‘Follies’ and ‘Assassins’ couldn’t be more different.”
The artistic director revealed he’s never seen a staged production of Sondheim’s killer musical. Of the manuscript used for the Roundabout reading, he added: “There were some revisions, but I wouldn’t call them major. John Weidman worked on it some.”
The “Assassins” reading on June 2 featured several younger musical-theater faces. The cast included Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald, Michael Hall as Booth, Becky Ann Baker as Moore, Lisa Loeb as Fromme, Stephen Spinella as Charles Guiteau and Brian D’Arcy James as Giuseppe Zangara.
At the Tony Awards on Sunday, Weidman told reporters that he and Sondheim continued to work on their musical “Wise Guys.” Sam Mendes had helmed a workshop production last year at the New York Theater Workshop. Harold Prince is now attached to the project as director.