ASSASSINS, Hayes Theatre Co at the Hayes Theatre, 15 September-22 October 2017. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Bobby Fox and Jason Kos; below - Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen; below again - David Campbell
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins first saw a footlight in 1990. Since then it has undergone some changes, but essentially, the murderous bunch of misfits of almost three decades ago is the same today: emblems of a society whose founding ideals have been warped and misappropriated almost from the very beginning. Now, more than ever, the dream of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is little more than a travesty, and this astonishing gem of musical theatre tells us why.
Opening in a tawdry carnival-fairground where sideshows and twinkling lights and fraud abound, Assassins – book by John Weidman with music and lyrics by Sondheim – begins with the premise which is possibly at the heart of everything that’s wrong with the USA: a jaunty song titled “Everyone Has The Right To Be Happy”. It’s a claim first made in the Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness...” At that time, the 18th century meaning of “happiness” was prosperity, thriving and wellbeing.”
Consequently many millions among the following generations of Americans have grown up to become disgruntled, bewildered, resentful and dissatisfied as their Disney-fied expectation of life being good and rich and happy, happy, happy has not come to pass. In the Sondheim view of what happens next, those rancorous feelings have, in a tiny minority, been stewed into a toxic intent to destroy the symbol of the rights and privileges out of which they’ve been cheated. In other words: kill the President. Ouch.
First up in this astonishing evening of murder and misanthropy is John Wilkes Booth, an actor and proponent of slavery and other Southern niceties. Apparently his original intention wasn’t to shoot Abraham Lincoln, but to kill himself. One wonders what kind of actor he was to be able to leap between two such extreme choices, as it is, as the debonair thespian, David Campbell is disturbingly charming and twinkly as well as singing like a fallen angel.
The night is overseen and orchestrated by the Proprietor of the pop-gun sideshow (Rob McDougall, possessor of a wry demeanour and luscious baritone voice) who observes his protégés from afar having kitted them out with a gun and potential target.
It’s a neat if glib idea – to fit the crime to the character – and pays dividends of grim hilarity when, for instance, the two females of the group set out to whack their victim. Sara Jane Moore (Kate Cole) is a housewifely sort and target practices on a tub of KFC before failing to shoot the Prez. At the other end of the scale of unacceptability, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Hannah Fredericksen) was one of the nastiest crazies of the Manson gang and her obsession is morbidly amusing, as is her failure to kill. That their target was Gerald Ford, the klutzy nice guy who most famously clobbered a bystander with a golf ball when his attempt at a drive went sideways, is somehow even funnier alongside their ineptitude.
There is nothing inept about the cast of eleven, however, and among the fine performances is Bobby Fox as Charley Guiteau, whose defiance on his way to the hangman’s trapdoor is a show-stopper, with a neon-lit noose-cum-skipping rope and the Ballad of Guiteau. It’s one of many bizarre and beautiful images in a production gloriously directed by Dean Bryant, designed (costumes and set) by Alicia Clements and lit by Ross Graham. What these three – and the producers – achieve with this show should cause commercial mega-musical-makers to squirm with embarrassment, or envy.
The 100 minutes running time of this music and action-packed show take us from Abe Lincoln and 1865 to 1981 and John Hinckley Jnr’s attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan. In 2017 it’s the character of the geeky misfit (a chillingly creepy performance from Connor Crawford) who was obsessed with Jodie Foster that possibly resonates most.
It was Foster’s celebrity and her refusal to love him, not that she knew of his existence, that caused Hinckley to take aim at Reagan. Surely, he reasoned, this act would bring him to her attention and make her love him ever after. Hinckley is most like Squeaky Fromme in his pathetic delusions and also therefore a forerunner of reality TV and social media nastiness – all of which is about delusion and abdication of human responsibility. Shudder.
Assassins allows the argument that such infantile lunacy is the result of that tragic and impossible quest for happiness. The Balladeer (Maxwell Simon), Emma Goldman (Laura Bunting) in particular and Giuseppe Zangara (Martin Crewes) are reminders of the prevalence of adult behaviour and real politik in political killings. While the foundations of modern America – its immigrants who more than most chased the dream – are robustly represented by Leon Czolgosz (Jason Kos) and Samuel Byck (Justin Smith).
This is history and murder as vaudeville, however, and it’s disgracefully entertaining. As well as an old jukebox, a decrepit pinball machine and a battered dodgem, there is a small (hidden) band led by Andrew Warboys that performs miracles of versatility and tightness on Sondheim’s notoriously tricky score. Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography is equally snappy and multifaceted and the company is up to every move and note.
Assassins falls into the category of “much anticipated” and this production lives up to all hopes and expectations. That the show itself is not quite as good as that is to do with the last ten minutes and a failed attempt by its creators to tie impossible knots and rationalise impossible conclusions. Nonetheless, if one were to say it’s 90 minutes of sheer bravado, wickedness and brilliance, it would be a fair summation. Really recommended.