A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

“Assassins” opens in a garish fairground, as the proprietor of a shooting stall whose sign flashes  SHOOT! WIN! encourages eight customers to become winners instead of losers. How?  By shooting a President and gaining instant celebrity and a place in history.  “Everybody’s got the right to dream,” he tells them, handing each a gun to aim at silhouette targets, and introducing them to the audience. Appropriately suggesting a limbo for the dispossessed, disappointed, and demented, the fairgrounds’ game of chance is backed by a wooden-beamed  skeleton of light and shadows, resembling the supporting structure of an old-time roller coaster. As the would-be killers agree that “everybody’s got the right,” the proprietor eggs them on to achieve their dreams of love or recognition or fame: “No job? Cupboard bare? /  One room, no one there?/ Hey, pal, don’t despair: / You wanna shoot a President?” 

In an excellent portrayal by Michael Cerveris, Southern actor John Wilkes Booth is the prototype of murderers to follow.  His stirring song of self-aggrandizement justifying the murder of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in 1865 as the heroic destruction of a tyrant is, however, set askew by counterpoint from a Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris), who with irony typical of the composer, suggests that bad reviews and waning popularity really motivated Booth’s claim to celebrity.  Trapped in a barn set on fire by his pursuers, Booth spends his last moments penning a letter declaring his altruistic motives. The letter is never published. 

Contrast being the keynote of a Sondheim musical – the irony of the illusion versus the reality – the Balladeer continues to deflate the claims of assassins like Charles Guiteau, a demented evangelist who shoots President Garfield in 1881 because he fails to reward Guiteau with the ambassadorship to France for his writing an unsolicited campaign speech.  In a chilling larger-than-life portrayal by the talented Denis O’Hare, Guiteau jauntily cakewalks up the stairs to the scaffold singing a hymn with lyrics he penned himself for the execution, “I Am Going to the Lordy.”

Samuel Byck (Mario Cantone) needs no Balladeer to remind us of his inconsistencies.  The unemployed tire salesman voiced his complains about corruption in politics on long, rambling tapes which he sent to celebrities. In a standup monologue that is both funny and scary, he is dressed in the Santa Claus costume he actually wore when picketing the White House.  Attempting to assassinate President Nixon in 1974, Byk is seen piloting a commercial jetliner he has hijacked, with the intent of crash diving it into the White House.  He killed two before he killed himself. 

Fate or shortness of stature deflects the assassination attempt on President Roosevelt by immigrant bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara( (Jeffrey Kuhn).  Barely five feet tall, he blamed the burning pains in his stomach on the capitalist system that exploited him as a child worker.  In Miami in 1933, he stood on a chair in the crowd to take aim at the President; it wobbled, and he missed, killing the mayor of Chicago instead.  Here Sondheim introduces realism in the reaction of the Ensemble or chorus – those everyday citizens who had come to cheer the President and now, thrown off balance, are recounting what they witnessed and asking, “Why?”

At the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo in 1901 a few bars of “Hail to the Chief” welcome President McKinley before skewing into a dirge as the President is shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish laborer in a bottle factory.  James Barbour’s beautiful rich voice as Leon recounts the pain and injury he suffers by making glass bottles, and in a brief but touching meeting with Emma Goldman, he confesses that he has been stalking her from town to town to hear and act on her speeches advocating anarchy.  He declares his love for her as she rushes off to a meeting, while he takes off for the Buffalo exposition, with a view of murdering of McKinley as a “duty.”

  In a barber-shop quartet that is a paean of praise to guns as the great equalizer, Mr. Barbour’s Czolgosz joins Booth, Guiteau, and Sarah Jane Moore, the batty housewife who tried to assassinate President Ford.  The lyricism of the music contrasts to the murder weapons they hold and reminds one of Sweeney Todd’s love ballad to his razors.

 “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a haunting love duet beautifully sung by John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Alexander Gemignani) as he addresses a photograph of  Jodie Foster and by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in praise of her lover Charles Manson, to whose “family” she belonged.   Both hoped their attempted assassination of a President would impress the object of their love.  Hinckley tried to shoot President Regan, and “Squeaky” believes her attempt on the life of President Ford will result in a trial that will offer witness Manson (she believes he is the “son of God”) the opportunity to preach to the world.  The tone lightens, momentarily, with Mary Catherine Garrison as “Squeaky” and  Becky Ann Baker as Moore ineptly attempting to kill Gerald Ford.

In “Something Just Broke” (added for the Donmar London production in 1992) the chorus of ordinary people comes into its own.  Tension mounts as Booth and the other assassins enter the Dallas textbook warehouse in 1963 and convince Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris) that he can achieve the power and importance he always sought and never attained – by shooting President Kennedy.   Most moving is this song by the Ensemble, representing the dazed public onlookers to the tragedy.

The finale is an ironic reminder of the ending of  Oklahoma.”  After the reprise of “Everybody’s got the right to dream,” the downstage cast face the auditorium and point their guns at the audience.  With a full orchestra directed by Paul Gemignani, and direction by Joe Mantello, “Assassins” is one Broadway production you won’t forget after you leave the theater.  (Studio 54, 254 W. 54, New York, N.Y., performance schedule and tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org. )