Left – Jason Winston and Madeline Jones. Cover – Kate Cole, David Campbell, Bobby Fox and Jason Winston. Photos – Prudence Upton
One of the legendary Stephen Sondheim’s somewhat less performed yet well-regarded musicals, 1990’s Assassins is a bold, almost hallucinatory trip into the lives and minds of eight men and two women who successfully murdered four American presidents, as well as five would-be assassins who failed in their attempts.
Set in the kind of bright, graphic-rich carnival that serves as the mainstay hideout of Batman villains, the audience is witness to a fantastically anachronistic meeting between these presidential assassins across centuries of time. One is not encouraged to take things too literally, and the show is a series of intertwining vignettes that do not really advance any kind of traditional plot as such, although they do build towards a certain thematic crescendo.
Proceeding from John Wilkes Booth, the first successful assassin of a U.S. president, as he attempts to justify his murder of Lincoln and control his perception in history, the show continues in a not-entirely chronological progression through the stories of each assassin in turn. The musical styles and theatrical presentations vary from ballads to ensemble numbers, dramatic monologues, and almost slapstick farce, ensuring a show that is never dull in its carnivalesque, almost variety-show approach.
The assorted killers and attempted murderers’ stories of frustration, desperation, mania and madness builds towards revealing the hitherto conspicuously absent Lee Harvey Oswald, who is portrayed in the Texas School Book Depository as contemplating not the death of Kennedy, but rather of himself. In the musical’s most ahistorically fanciful scene outside of the central premise itself, Oswald is approached by the ghosts of the presidential assassins who have come before him, as well as the future shades of those who will attempt to follow in his footsteps. They attempt to persuade him that a better solution to his problems than suicide, would be to make a difference in the world and gain immortality by killing the passing president.
Acting as ringleader in convincing Oswald of this destiny is Booth, and the climactic song of the show forges a major point of connection between Booth and Oswald, the two most famous assassins in American history. The spirits plead to Oswald their meta-historical notion that his fated act of murder will serve to revive the near-forgotten infamy of the assassins between him and Booth, as well as inspiring and legitimising those who would come after him.
This striking and powerful fantasy scene plays as something of a nod to the perpetual maelstrom of speculation about Oswald’s status as JFK’s assassin, indirectly acknowledging his perceived lack of a clear motive, while not buying into the many conspiracy theories of alternative perpetrators or accomplices. It holds Oswald to be the apotheosis of the disaffected private citizen turned presidential assassin as an indelible figure in the collective American consciousness. It frames him as the grand inheritor to the legacy of blood and madness that began with Booth.
Some may tout this revived production from its Hayes Theatre run as a play with surpassing “relevance”. Although America’s political deadlock of inaction over gun violence and school shootings in particular has reached a fever pitch in recent years, it would be an overstated point of connection to this show. Unless catering to some dark wish fulfillment in current times, the truth is that no American president since JFK has been killed, and none since Reagan have even been close to a truly life-threatening attempt. So while Sondheim’s musical has a highly specific focus which bears no direct contemporary pertinence, and even gun control per se is not strongly addressed, its underlying themes remain highly topical.
By delving into the motivations of these marginal individuals who felt the “American Dream” over-promised and under-delivered to them its myth of universal opportunity, prosperity, happiness and self-actualisation, coupled with the national obsession with gun ownership, these thematic issues still resonate deeply. Indeed, it would be a topic for keener social analysts than I to ponder whether the escalating incidences of angry, unhappy boys and men who turn guns on public groups of their fellow citizens instead of government officials represents some kind of significant shift in trends of social dysfunction. Even if the stories of many of the presidential assassins depicted in this musical may not be well known to the average Australian, their muddled and unsettling motivations are likely to sound eerily familiar to the reportage of the hundreds of American mass shooters in recent years.
Once again I question the recent propensity of theatrical productions to choose to perform without interval, although in this case we ended up receiving it anyway, albeit an impromptu one, and under most regrettable circumstances. Unfortunately, the opening night crowd was witness to the performance stopping due to injury, when Bobby Fox landed badly at the conclusion to the spectacular rope-jumping finale of his big song as President Garfield’s assassin Charles J. Guiteau. As de facto captain of the ship, star David Campbell came onstage to halt the performance and announce a short break, after which director Dean Bryant explained that Fox was on his way to hospital. The role would be filled for the remainder of the evening’s performance, “book in hand”, by associate producer Spencer Bignell. Fortunately, he evidently already had the choreography down pat and was not required for any significant dialogue, let alone singing from that point onwards. So despite the dramatic interruption, the remainder of the performance was able to conclude without further hitch.
The cast was exceptionally strong all around, but major plaudits go to Campbell as John Wilkes Booth, the would-be patron saint of presidential assassins, as well as Connor Crawford who emerges from the twitchy and introverted persona of John Hinckley Jr. to reveal some disarmingly impressive pipes for his guitar solo ballad at the footlights. Kate Cole and Hannah Fredericksen as the attempted dual failed assassins of Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme respectively, make a hilarious double-act. And lest he be remembered only for his unfortunate injury, Bobby Fox made an impressive showing as Guiteau, even if the sight of a presidential assassin injuring his leg while attempting to exit the stage is an almost overwhelming irony.
Easily the standout performance though came from Anthony Gooley, as Nixon’s would-be assassin Samuel Byck. While at points delivering his patented comedic turns with the usual aplomb, his monologues revealed a quite startling depth of dramatic acting that I, for one, have not previously witnessed him deliver to such a spellbinding extent. Byck embodies the existential crisis of disenfranchised American men’s feelings of emasculated powerlessness over whichever social issues obsess them, and their sense being lied to by “the system” colliding with shame over their personal baggage and mental health issues. These distraught, raving speeches of solipsistic meltdown writ large are superbly brought to life by Gooley in the most chillingly simple yet impactful scenes in the show.
Assassins is not a conventional narrative musical, to be sure, but it is powerful stuff, with an emotional and intellectual impact not to be underestimated, lurking just below the surface of its outré premise and delightfully gaudy production design. Highly recommended.
Sydney Opera House presents
music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book John Weidman
Director Dean Bryant
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 7 June – 1 July 2018
Tickets: from $49.90