Stephen Sondheim's bloody take on US history, politics and celebrity culture comes to the Hayes
After an acclaimed season at the Hayes Theatre in 2017, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins is returning to Sydney with a run at the Opera House. The new season reunites most of the original Hayes Theatre cast, with David Campbell reprising his role as John Wilkes Booth. Here's our four-star review of the 2017 production:
When Stephen Sondheim arrived on the musical theatre scene, he changed it forever. He took stock of the romantic comedies of the 1950s – think The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls – and, after some initial dabbling in the genre, created a new wave of song-and-dance stories that got real (see: Into the Woods. Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George). Sondheim’s signature involves clever lyrics, ambitious music, and complex characters with complicated feelings. Assassins wasn’t one of Sondheim’s biggest hits, but it is one of his most notorious: a cult favourite that relishes its own daring.
What better place for a game-changer than a game-changing theatre like the Hayes? Opening in 2014, this small theatre instantly became a home for independent and small-scale professional musical theatre; and they’ve become known for challenging, quirky chamber-style musicals as well as sold-out, gritty revivals of old favourites.
In other words: the Hayes is a natural fit for Sondheim – and for their first attempt at the modern master, they’ve chosen Assassins, with a production directed by their erstwhile posterboy, Dean Bryant (behind Hayes hits Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors).
We open trapped in the remains of the American dream. In what looks like a rundown carnival (or: the neon light boneyard in Las Vegas), unstuck from time, America’s Presidential assassins and almost-assassins accept a gun from a Proprietor (Rob McDougall, an agent of chaos) who invites them to “c’mere and kill a President.”
There follows a series of vignettes: a pastiche of musical numbers recounting an aspect of each assassination attempt, as well as some in-group interaction – as if this ragtag bunch were a league of Z-list super-villains in their lair. A Balladeer (notable newcomer Maxwell Simon), armed with a guitar and an Americana-twang tenor, sings their stories.
John Wilkes Booth (David Campbell) is treated with deference as the leader of the group – the one who made all subsequent acts possible, the pioneer of killing the chief. We also meet Sara Jane Moore (Kate Cole), John Hinckley Jr (Connor Crawford), Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Hannah Fredericksen), Giuseppe Zangara (Martin Crewes), Charles Guiteau (Bobby Fox), Leon Czolgosz (Jason Kos), and Samuel Byck (Justin Smith). There’s also an appearance by anarchist Emma Goldman (Laura Bunting).
Soon, the assassins are united in a cause: to convince Lee Harvey Oswald (Simon again, following in the footsteps of Joe Mantello’s 2004 Broadway production by combining these two roles) to assassinate Kennedy. This is the only way, they’re sure, to keep their own stories alive, and to make those assassins who follow him (like Hinckley Jr, Fromme and Moore) possible. (See how the laws of time and space don’t apply?)
Bryant, who infuses contemporary concerns into classical musicals like they’ve always been there, is a great fit for this show. Riding the turbulent wave of angry political commentary in 2017 at home and abroad, his production of Assassins is the trickster god of musicals: aggressive, mocking, and irresistible. Lest we think our times are so different from the history in the show, Bryant has the Proprietor constantly remind us we’re also at a historical breaking point: he reads current newspapers with TRUMP in their headlines and at one point he leafs through The Art of the Deal. In the show’s finale, he sends a clear signal to today’s unrest that is too dark to spoil.
But the show, for all its breathless patter, superlative performances, and deft deployment of varying musical styles, shows its age. 28 years have passed since Assassins made its debut, and since then we’ve seen a lot more pastiche-style shows, which makes it easier to spot the flaws in this one. It lags in its pure book scenes, and takes a jarring turn to place the bulk of its dramatic emphasis on the Lee Harvey Oswald seduction to preserve their legacies, shifting the focus from the characters’ various sociopolitical concerns. There’s much more dramaturgical groundwork for the latter rather than the former, and it feels like a pulled punch to focus on the more superficial desire to be remembered when it’s time for the show’s emotional climax.
The gender politics of 1990 are also well on display here. Assassins uses Moore and Fromme exclusively for comedy, assigning them a stereotypical woman’s ineptitude in the male-dominated field of killing Presidents – even though they are not the only figures on stage whose assassination attempts failed. Comedy is welcome here among all the talk of murder and injustice, but that doesn’t justify the book’s use of the women as comic foils. Cole is warm and wonderful as Moore, but she still, scatterbrained, pulls a dildo and shoe from her bag when she’s hunting for a gun, and her radical politics don’t get so much as a look-in, even though the radical politics of others, like Leon Czolgosz, are explored and even romanticised. Fredericksen is a delight as the frothy Fromme, but in 2017, she might have had more material than ‘moony cultist’ to work with.
But this feels like the best possible production of the material as it stands. Andrew Warboys and Steven Kreamer, with nothing but musical nous and a five piece band, bring well-balanced, energetic life to Sondheim’s demanding score. The vocal talents of the cast are a treat – from Campbell’s caramel tone to Fredericksen’s throaty drawl and everywhere in between, united by the indefatigable Simon and grounded by McDougall’s authoritative, generous baritone. Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography is witty and appealingly scrappy – look out for some jump-rope with fairy lights, and machine-inspired movement to help us process Guiteau’s showboating and Czolgosz’s industrial, factory-born suffering. Ross Graham’s lighting pairs beautifully with designer Alicia Clements’ pops of light and mirrors, and her costumes address history from the 1900s to 1980s with casual, lived-in flair.
“Everyone deserves the right to be happy,” the assassins sing, although who is truly, uncomplicatedly happy? And when was the last time you got a prize for trying to change the world? In this way, Assassins totally gets you. There might not be a compelling or unified political ideology here, but it’s a dazzling production that’s as mad as you are, so why not set your anger aside for a night? They’ll do the raging for you.