We talk a lot about the need for theatre to be challenging and transgressive, to push boundaries and all those other good things that make art feel relevant. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins had its premier in 1990, and seeing it 24 years later at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is one of the only shows I can think of that left me feeling I’d witnessed something truly taboo, that left me wondering how on earth they ever got away with getting this show made.

To be clear, that’s a good thing. 

Famously, a revival of the musical was cancelled in the wake of 9/11, though it eventually went up in 2004. The subject matter– the crowd of misfits who attempted to assassinate presidents joined together in a bizarre kind of fairground purgatory– was deemed much too sensitive for the times. Probably it was. But this production has plenty of events to strike chords with, too– questions of our national obsession with violence, with choose-your-own-justice, with uncompromising individualism. Sondheim and Weidman are far from glamorizing the assassins (and would-be assassins), but the show is also careful to note that such madness does not spring from nowhere. These are the remnants when the American Dream curdles. 

In Jamie Lloyd’s production, we begin at a dingy fairground, complete with wrecked bumper car and super creepy clown heads. Enter the Proprietor (Simon Lipkin, whose own clown make-up is a bit of overkill, but whose singing is lovely), who proceeds to lure the potential killers into buying the gun that will change their lives. He’s soon joined, and then supplanted in this effort by the man they recognize as their “pioneer,” John Wilkes Booth. Booth is the most charismatic and, frankly, most sane of the assassins, and Aaron Tveit (sounding gorgeous, as usual) endows him with a manic idealism that foregrounds Booth’s extreme youth– he was, after all, only 27 when he killed Lincoln and was subsequently killed himself. 

In the opposite corner is the Balladeer (often literally, given the alley-style stage), toting a banjo and utterly appalled by the assassins’ displays. He musically narrates their doings with supreme irony, but at the same time, cannot turn away. Jamie Parker is the perfect onlooker, by turns wryly amused and profoundly disturbed. But he is not quite as able to set himself apart from the assassins as his conspiratorial glances to the audience suggest, and by the end he has succumbed to their seductive suggestion that there is another way for those who feel the promises of the country have failed them.

Beyond this, the show is more characters sketches than narrative, but the stylistic gestures (including flashing fairground likes to mark each ‘hit’ or ‘miss,’ and a truly spectacular use of red confetti when an assassin hits his mark) and crisp direction keep the show from feeling disjointed. Notable amongst the ensemble are Stewart Clarke’s tremendous Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who killed McKinley, and Carly Bawden as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson who attempted to kill Ford. Bawden also wins the prize for best American accent (excluding those cast members who are, you know, actually American). 

The only major misstep in structure or tone is Sondheim’s own– the penultimate number, “Something Just Broke,” which was added in 2004 and is very pretty and well-performed here, but disrupts the momentum of the final moments and just doesn’t work. It seems designed, perhaps, to soften the show somewhat, to hedge somewhat its otherwise relentlessly harsh (and very often funny, though never sweetly so) tone by giving voice to the ‘average person,’ the people like you and me who would mourn the death of a president, not rejoice at it. But that doesn’t seem to me to be what the show needs, or is really about. 

As with Scottsboro Boys, I can’t help but wonder what the English members of the audience were thinking. If an audience member can just sit back, and allow the play to become just an abstract indictment of some other country’s fatal obsession with both violence and success, does it lose, if not its punch, perhaps its purpose? Though in this production the assassins (with the possible exception of Booth) all seem more truly mentally ill than I’d ever noticed, it is forcefully not a story about a them. The assassins want what everybody wants, have bought into the same promise for America and hope for the same returns of life, liberty, and happiness. “When you lose, what you do is try again,” the Balladeer, desperation edging his frustration, tries to remind the would-be killers near the end of the play. “The country’s built on dreams,” he says. And the assassins nod along in agreement. That’s just what they’re after. 

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