Assassins was the first Sondheim musical I ever saw, 16 years ago (I can even be accurate about how long ago it was because it was at the first Edinburgh Festival I went to, in 1994.) I can remember absolutely loving it, and despite having heard a lot of comments about the tunes being unmemorable, a couple of them (especially "Everybody's Got The Right" and "The Ballad of Guiteau") have been stuck in my head ever since. So I was feeling some trepidation on revisiting it, whether it'd live up to expectations, especially as I had more theatre companions than usual for this trip: Vanessa was a given since it's Sondheim, but Andy and Richard had also been intrigued by the show's premise.
With a book by John Weidman, this is a pitch-black satire on the American Dream that follows the assassins, both successful and unsuccessful, of various US Presidents. It was a rare flop for Sondheim on Broadway, and I can see why America might have had trouble embracing it; not only for any perceived disrespect towards the dead Presidents, but because its main aim is to puncture that firmly-held belief, the American Dream - the language here is aspirational, after all the theory is that anyone can grow up to be President, but if not, why not be the man who killed the President instead? As the song says, everybody's got the right to be happy, and being immortalised as a presidential assassin might just be what makes some people happy. Michael Strassen's production sees the studly ensemble actors stalk the theatre before the show starts, dressed as bodyguards (prompting a classic Vanessa "d'oh!" comment as we took our seats of "oh that's why he was wearing sunglasses indoors!") There's no story as such, but after kicking off with Glyn Kerslake as John Wilkes Booth [Lincoln, successful,] a trailblazer of sorts in this context, we see pieces of the stories of some of the other assassins, sometimes what led up to the deed, sometimes what happened to them afterwards. (Spoiler: It tended not to be good.)
There's a lot of great performances here - the aforementioned Kerslake, plus John Barr as the incredibly odd little man, Charles Guiteau [Garfield, successful,] Adam Jarrell as a strangely sweet Leon Czolgosz [McKinley, successful,] and Nick Holder as a grotesque and terrifying Samuel Byck [Nixon, unsuccessful - Sean Penn played him in a film a few years ago.] The funniest scenes come from Alison Lardner and Leigh McDonald as Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore [Ford, unsuccessful,] as they bungle their attempt. (Looking at the programme notes shows their collaboration is actually an invention for dramatic purposes - they made separate failed attempts within a couple of weeks of each other; clearly Ford was not popular among women.) The standout song is "Unworthy of Your Love," Lardner's duet with Paul Callen as John Hinckley [Reagan, unsuccessful although he did wound him.] Out of context a sweet love song, in fact they're singing to their respective objects of obsession, Charles Manson and Jodie Foster (I thought Strassen could have made it clearer who the latter was - Callen pinned a photo of Foster on a pillar near us, but if you couldn't see it and didn't know the story you wouldn't know who the "Jodie" in the song was meant to be.) This song's downright sick sense of humour says a lot about what I love about this show.
Nolan Frederick as the Baladeer is also excellent, but his role in the drama is a bit vague - sometimes a narrator figure, he disappears for long periods with Booth taking on a similar role. Dramatically there's actually quite a lot wrong with how the piece is put together: Excellent while Holder's performance is, Byck's long, angry monologues do completely bring the show to a halt, twice. The show does have an atmospheric ending as the lesser-known assassins rally behind the only successful one in living memory to sell him their version of the American Dream, but in this production Marc Joseph makes for an unfortunately camp Lee Harvey Oswald [Kennedy, successful] which takes away from the effect a bit. Still, although this isn't a rediscovered classic, I wasn't disappointed, and actually found the songs pretty strong even if the storytelling is dodgy. Of those of us who've seen both the obscure Sondheim revivals in recent months, Vanessa preferred this one and I tend to agree, while Andy thought Anyone Can Whistle had the edge. All of us thought that, while flawed, it was definitely worth seeing.
Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is booking until the 24th of July at the Union Theatre.