Friday, February 21, 2014
I saw this Stephen Sondheim musical a bit before Christmas. It was being performed in a relatively low budget production by the well known Irish theatre company Rough Magic. This lot are no strangers to the musical, having treated us previously to Improbable Frequency, a musical play featuring John Betjeman, Erwin Schrödinger, Flann O'Brien and various fictional characters hanging out together in neutral Ireland during the Second World War. Rough Magic is a company whose name I see as a reliable mark of quality; or did until that Canadian unpleasantness of some years ago, of which I will speak no further.
Assassins is about assassins. In particular it is about people who have assassinated US presidents, or had a crack at one of those leaders of the free world. Partly it presents all of the assassins (successful or not) in a strange surreal otherworld, and then separately we have vignettes of each of their lives, either showing them as they get ready for their crack at Mr President or else some other formative experience. Perhaps in an attempt to shoehorn some kind of overall plot, things climax in with all the assassins joining Lee Harvey Oswald in the Book Depository, urging him to shoot Kennedy rather than kill himself.
There is quite a range of thematic mood in what is on offer here. Some of the stories are rather poignant (that of Leon Czolgosz, say, the lone wolf anarchist who murdered President McKinley). Others are dealt with more humorously (e.g. the tale of Samuel Byck, who tried to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House).
Assassins presents its subjects mostly as dysfunctional individuals who tried to kill the President as a way of validating their pathetic existences or for other similarly inconsequential reasons. That works for some of them more than others. My sense is that Czolgosz was not the loser motivated by a sad infatuation with Emma Goldman, as shown here, but someone genuinely motivated by a desire to effect social change by striking at the top man of capitalist society, as was a common enough idea in anarchism of the time. Likewise with John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln, presented here as another saddo. I am in no way sympathetic with his pro-slavery and white supremacist views, but it seems to me that Booth was a committed ideological assassin and not the delusional fantasist he is presented here as.
On the other hand, John Hinckley Jr. (the guy who shot Reagan because he was obsessed with Jodie Foster) and Samuel Byck are probably presented accurately as fucked up saddos. Because saddos are funny, Assassins gets a lot of mileage out of these two, with some of the stuff with Byck being quite hilarious on a number of levels. Byck seems to have been one of those crazies (as they like to be called) who recorded tapes outlining his view of the world to send to famous people. One of the people he recorded tapes for was Leonard Bernstein, the conductor and composer, Sondheim's previous collaborator on West Side Story. I have no idea how well or badly Sondheim and Bernstein got on together, but there is something funny about a Sondheim musical in which a character rants and raves at Bernstein. Jack Olohan's performance as Byck was an impressive one.
Byck's actual attempt to kill Nixon resulted in his own death and that of an airport policeman and pilot; he shot another pilot but that man survived. The plane he tried to hijack never left the ground.
Possibly because it gets to have dialogue between two assassins (who in real life I think never met each other), the scenes with Sara Jane Moore and Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme are perhaps the best in the play. Fromme and Moore separately tried to kill Gerald Ford a few weeks apart in 1975. Moore was an eccentric far leftist while Fromme was a member of the Manson Family who had until then somehow escaped conviction for serious crime. Assassins presents them both as oddballs, but Fromme comes across as the more driven and less delusional one of the two, with Moore presented as more of a flake, someone who had slipped into the whole assassination business almost by accident and certainly without thinking things through properly. The performances of Clare Barrett as Moore and Erica Murray as Fromme are probably the most striking in Assassins, though that might be because they have the most meaty roles.
I will stop there lest I bore you with an outline of everyone who ever tried to kill a president and how Assassins deals with them (but you should definitely investigate the strange career of Charles Guiteau). One thing I will draw to your attention as I finish writing about the show is the music. Careful readers will by now notice that I have said nothing about it. And in truth, that is because it has not lingered in my memory. I did enjoy it while I heard it but I would not know be able to hum a single tune sung in the show. This may be why Assassins has proved so much less successful than such other Sondheim musicals as Sweeney Todd or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
image source (Flickr set of shots of the play)
An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.