Review - Assassins

Robert Knox
The Boston Globe
November 05, 2009
Sondheim’s dark musical takes stage

Roy Harris is a professional writer, not an actor. But the Hingham resident will play the role of a presidential assassin in “Assassins,” a dark musical by Broadway maestro Stephen Sondheim that has done better in regional theaters than it did on the Great White Way. Like the rest of the cast, Harris will perform for love (not money) at Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, a company that relies on volunteer actors while hiring professional directors and musical directors.

A freelance writer who writes for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harris has been performing in community theater for five years, drawn especially to musicals because of his love of singing. He said he loves Sondheim’s music; “When do you walk out of a musical these days humming a song?” he asks.

But he points out that “Assassins,” with characters that include Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, is an ambitious and unusual choice for a community theater.

Curtain Call generally does three shows a year, drawing a loyal coterie of actors who show up for auditions, said Mike Pevzner of Kingston, the theater’s publicity coordinator. Community theater “is a way of life,” Pevzner said. “A theater company becomes an extended family.”

Pevzner agreed that “Assassins” is far from typical fare for local theater. He called it “perhaps the most controversial play ever written.”

A play about people who killed, or tried to kill, American presidents, “Assassins” makes audiences uncomfortable because it asks them to see things at least in part from the point of view of the killers. “As uncomfortable as it makes us, these are real people,” said director James Fagan.

Taking place in an imaginary netherworld where assassins from different eras confront and tempt one another, the play depicts the interactions of the killers and would-be killers of presidents in a kind of mystical congress of suffering souls who are seduced by the need to make a difference in the worst way. “Move your little finger,” Harris says, summing up one of the play’s songs, “and you can change the world.”

From infamous killers such as Oswald and Booth to failed assassins such as John Hinkley, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore, and largely forgotten figures such as Leon Czolgosz (who murdered William McKinley, throwing the nation into mourning in 1901), the characters have in common the desire to take history into their own hands.

A first generation American with Polish parents, Czolgosz “did it for the working man,” said Harris, who portrays him at Curtain Call. “Be believed the working man is downtrodden and the bosses rule the world.” While few celebrated his deed, in early 20th-century America, where industrial workers put in 60-hour work weeks for subsistence wages, many people would have agreed with his analysis of society.

But Sondheim’s play refuses to endorse simple answers or attitudes. One lyric in his song about Czolgosz asks, “Who would want to kill a man of good will like Big Bill?”

Sondheim, who writes both music and lyrics for his musicals, matches the music to his troubling matter. The songs combine great melodies and discordant music, Harris said.

The play’s musical director, Matt Stern, said Sondheim uses patriotic music such as marches and anthems and skews the familiar genre to reflect the delusions of the characters. “The different styles of music reflect American values,” said Stern. The songs carry the implicit message that America’s desperate characters are also a reflection of its values: the believe in freedom and an individual’s right to make a change.

Sondheim’s songs also reflect the musical styles of his characters’ times. Czolgosz’s song is written in the style of barbershop quartet. The song of a failed ‘80s assassin sounds like a Burt Bacharach ballad.

Sondheim began his career by writing lyrics to a postwar musical that broke the mold, “West Side Story.” He followed it with acclaimed musicals such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”; “Into the Woods” (a postmodernist take on folk tales); and “Sweeney Todd,” which enjoyed a successful Broadway revival four years ago.

Harris called “Assassins” a piece of musical theater whose theme is a persistent form of American soul-sickness responsible for tragedy and national trauma. “You get inside the head of these assassins,” he said.