Sondheim, ‘Assassins’ and a killer profit for theater

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“Assassins” is a tough musical to like, however perhaps even a tougher one to overlook.

This present by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is constructed round a rogue’s gallery of notorious Individuals who tried, in some instances efficiently, to kill the president of the US. As an outline, “audacious” appears far too tame for a musical that searches for the pep in pathological and even makes treason tuneful.

Cognitive dissonance is constructed into a piece that saves a few of its prettiest melodies for probably the most murderous maniacs. Frank Wealthy, in his evaluate of the 1991 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, referred to as it “an antimusical about antiheroes.” The present was a success off-Broadway, but it surely took 13 years for this disturbing vaudeville to make it to Broadway.

A deliberate 2001 Broadway manufacturing, directed by Joe Mantello, was postponed due to the 9/11 terrorist assaults. With the nation nonetheless smoldering, how might audiences be anticipated to end up for a musical that features one tried murderer who needed to hijack a aircraft and crash it into the White Home?

If historical past all the time appears to be bumping into “Assassins,” it’s most likely as a result of the darkish cultural currents that give rise to John Wilkes Sales space, Lee Harvey Oswald and their copycat form are regularly being replenished in a nation that enjoys dividing its residents into winners and losers.

The tumultuous historical past of “Assassins” is recalled in “Inform the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ‘Assassins,’” a vibrant recorded profit for New York’s Traditional Stage Firm, conceived and directed by creative director John Doyle, one in all Sondheim’s most ingenious up to date interpreters.

Doyle was in rehearsal with “Assassins” final 12 months when New York efficiency venues had been pressured to shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The present will reopen the off-Broadway theater later this 12 months, and this documentary (accessible until Monday) is each a salute to the musical and to the scrappy brilliance of theater artists, whose survival is being examined like by no means earlier than.

How will the present play after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol? Presumably not as an exhibition of deranged, fame-seeking extremists however as a window into widespread American grievance. “All people’s Obtained the Proper,” the musical’s opening (and shutting) quantity, appears to be like at what can occur when the federal government is blamed for standing in the way in which of a disaffected citizen’s pursuit of happiness.

In her preface to the documentary, Hillary Clinton calls consideration to the dire state of affairs of theaters, like CSC, that are struggling to resuscitate themselves after being darkish for thus lengthy. If anybody has the correct to be unsettled by “Assassins,” it’s the previous secretary of State, senator and first girl, who, regardless of all of the obstacles thrown in her path, got here inside a hair’s breadth of turning into our first girl president. However with the authority of somebody who is aware of the darkish underbelly of American politics, she makes the case for a musical that “dares its viewers to see our nation and assess our nationwide myths by the eyes of our villains as an alternative of our heroes.”

Essentially the most joyous facet of this documentary is in watching solid members from the off-Broadway premiere, the Broadway manufacturing and the upcoming CSC revival evaluate notes about their characters and musical numbers. In addition they sing collectively over Zoom, lending their totally different colours to songs that stability sincerity and sendup on the barrel of a gun.

“Inform the Story” captures time itself in juxtaposing actors from totally different generations in the identical roles. Whereas the older performers provide us a style of what they’ll nonetheless magnificently do, we’re additionally given glimpses of their flip within the “Assassins” highlight.

What makes the present difficult and forward of its time is a working theme. The issue, nevertheless, solely appears to reinforce the savor.

To additional whet our curiosity, there’s a quick pattern of “The Ballad of Sales space” between Will Swenson (solid as Charles Guiteau, President James A. Garfield’s murderer, in Doyle’s manufacturing) and Audra McDonald, as husband and spouse conclude this system with a last pitch for donations. A bit of extra McDonald and I might need transformed from an “Assassins” agnostic to a holy curler.

I’ve seen the present solely as soon as, in the course of the 2004 Broadway premiere at Studio 54. I admired the conceptual ambition and intelligent craft, however the present left me desirous to race house and take a bathe. However first impressions with Sondheim musicals aren’t final impressions, and I’ve been ready for one more alternative to come across a piece that cracks open an American psychosis that’s entangled with our nationwide faith, movie star.

Sondheim, nobly bearing his 91 years, makes an look on the finish of the documentary with Weidman to mirror on the peculiarly American nature of this story. However he maybe summed up the musical’s intention most clearly in “Look, I Made a Hat,” the second of his two-volume collected lyrics and attendant commentaries, when he concluded:

“How might one inconsequential offended little man trigger such common grief and anguish? Extra vital, why would he?

“That’s what ‘Assassins’ is about.”

The return of this recalcitrant musical is an encouraging signal that the theater received’t be pulling its punches when it lastly comes again.

‘Inform the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins”‘

The place: Streaming through Traditional Stage Firm

When: By way of 8 p.m. Monday

Tickets: Free (donations accepted)


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