For 56 years, ever since his work on “West Side Story,” composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has written about angry people, broken people, people whose uncontrollable destructive influences lead them to wreck marriages or careers or children’s hopes or their own misguided lives. He’s made us empathize with almost all of them along the way.
He took on an almost impossible subject – would-be and successful presidential attackers – in the 1990 musical “Assassins,” with a book by “Pacific Overtures” collaborator John Weidman. It was one of his rare failures: Critics were mixed, audiences unsympathetic, and the off-Broadway production closed after 73 performances without reaching Broadway. It lay dormant until 2004, when its first Broadway outing won five Tonys (including best revival of a musical).
Yet that revamped version ran just 101 performances: New York audiences still didn’t wish to probe the troubled minds of John Wilkes Booth or John Hinckley. A nearly sold-out crowd at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre Thursday suggests Charlotteans may be more curious after all these years.
The story traces an arc from 1860 to the 1980s, with the assassins’ motives reflecting the cultures in which they grew up.
Booth (uncannily apt Samuel Crawford) speaks of a tyrant dethroned, of just retribution against a man whom he feels ruined America. He speaks, he feels, for ruined Southerners. Leon Csolgosz (Scott C. Reynolds) thinks he’ll strike a blow in 1900 for working classes oppressed by capitalist bosses.
By the 1970s, Samuel Byck and Sara Jane Moore (Chris Sepulveda and Meredith Wesbrooks Owen) merely express vague discontent with an America that has somehow “failed” them, while Squeaky Fromme (Katie Riley) and John Hinckley (Wm. Daniel Hoffman) aim at presidents to impress potential sex partners.
Sondheim and Weidman may not quite convince us these people are the sad but logical result of a society that has no room for losers: Many were deranged and didn’t get or seek mental help. The authors play fast and loose with facts: Charles Manson didn’t go to high school in Moore’s home town, nor did Booth commit suicide. (A Union soldier shot him. Don’t get your history from musical theater.)
Yet there’s a chilling moment when the assassins gather around Lee Harvey Oswald (Joshua Lucero) to suggest that killing John F. Kennedy will give his life the only meaning, however perverse, it can ever have. In fact, the authors build up so strong a connection between us and the killers that a song for a chorus of ordinary citizens (“Something Just Broke”) had to be inserted here in the 1992 London production, to remind us of the terrible consequences of such deaths.
Director Charles LaBorde wisely decided to separate the characters of the narrating Balladeer (Ryan Deal) and Oswald; in the 2004 version, the Balladeer “became” Oswald, as if the lone optimistic character couldn’t resist going to the dark side. LaBorde gets good work from his cast; Daniel O’Sullivan’s Charles Guiteau, for instance, can be pathetic, funny or infuriating as needed.
But the musical, CAST’s second after “Floyd Collins,” still needs work when people sing.
Sondheim’s score includes echoes of Americana: marches, folk ballads, a faux hymn tune. Those come off well, but the singers often struggle with more typically complex harmonies. They fall back on “acting” the lyrics, as if Sondheim’s tunes can be talked through with lots of energy and approximated pitches. They cannot.
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