"It's not one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest hits," admits producer Kevin Johnson, whose Arizona Onstage Productions opens a short run of the show May 12. (Sondheim is best known for Sweeney Todd, recently produced by Arizona Opera, Into the Woods and A Little Night Music.) "But out of all the works that he's brought to the public, Sondheim feels this is as close to perfect as anything he's created. There's the mix of dramatic and comedic material, and the way the score is influenced by historic American music--old ballads, Aaron Copland, Sousa, and popular music of the '70s and '80s. He apparently feels that of everything he's done, this piece is most reflective of what America and its music are all about."
Director Carol Calkins says that she would have declined to take on this show if it had been a goofy glorification of killers. "Assassins is not saying it's wonderful what these people did, or that the fact that they're singing about it makes it OK. It doesn't condone their actions, but it makes us think about them. It makes us understand how in America, some people believe they can grow up to be president, while other people believe they can kill the president."
In about 90 minutes of short scenes, composer-lyricist Sondheim and writer John Weidman trot out nine successful and failed presidential assassins, from the dashing Booth to the nerdy John Hinkley Jr. Some--like Booth, and McKinley killer, Leon Czolgosz--truly believed they were acting in the best interest of their country. Others were just nuts. As the show makes clear, each was, in an individual way, quite desperate.
"It's an intense exploration of people's personalities and why they do what they do," says Johnson. "When there's an assassination attempt, all we hear about is what happened; we don't tend to find out any background on the killers, and that's what Assassins gives us. Finding out somebody's background doesn't excuse something as horrible as assassination, but it moves the audience into thinking patterns they may not have experienced before."
Says Calkins, "I think when you leave the play and talk about it, that's what the show is really about, the talking about it afterwards. If we stimulate people's curiosity about history with this, that's wonderful."
Johnson spent six weeks auditioning 80 contenders for this show, and twisting the arms of a few people he wanted who weren't sure what they were getting into. He ended up with a cast of 21, plus tech people and musicians. Four of the performers belong to Actors' Equity; others are top UA graduate students and highly accomplished actors and singers familiar from other local theaters.
"Sondheim doesn't like anything that's easy to sing," says Johnson of why it was difficult to cast this show. "We had to find people who were not only good actors but could also immediately sight-read Sondheim."
The cast includes Liz McMahon, familiar for her portrayals of Patsy Cline and Sophie Tucker at Invisible Theatre; plus, as Monte Ralstin, J. Andrew McGrath; Johnson himself, David Mordon, Benjamin Crawford and many others.
Arizona Onstage Productions has publicly presented only one show before this; last year's Falsettoland received a moving and highly adept production despite a limited budget. The show managed to close $2,740 in the black, which was precisely how much it cost to get the rights for a local production of Assassins. When Falsettoland closed, Johnson quickly locked in his claim on Assassins, paying in advance. A good thing, too; Johnson was allowed to go ahead with his production, even though a production of Assassins just opened on Broadway a couple of weeks ago. (A Broadway presence usually freezes out productions elsewhere.)
Assassins opened off-Broadway in the winter of 1990-91, and ran for only 73 performances. Johnson was one of the 10,147 people who managed to catch the show back then, waiting in line for a canceled ticket in the freezing cold outside a small theater. He finally got in, and he found himself in interesting company.
"Two chairs behind me," he recalls, "Stephen Sondheim was taking notes furiously on a yellow legal pad."
Sondheim made several revisions in the show after the original-cast CD was recorded, the most significant of which is a new song, "Something Just Broke," which details the effects of presidential assassination on the American public.
"It adds a lot of heart and humanity to the piece," says Johnson.
Calkins initially feared the song might soften and conventionalize the show too much, but she quickly changed her mind.
"It's important to bring in what this means to ordinary people," she says. "This can be devastating. Everybody who was old enough then still remembers what they were doing when they heard Kennedy was shot." Calkins herself was a student at Howell Elementary School, listening to the radio during recess and having to break the news to her classmates and teacher.
"'Something Just Broke' gives a reality to the show, reminding us that people have to find some way to deal with an assassination, explain it to their families and comfort each other," she says. "It shows us both sides of the coin. Only one side has a president on it."