After a couldn't-get-a-ticket-to-save-the-President's-life run in 2010, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins is back at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. What a thrill to return to find Adam Brazier's superb production not only remounted, but reinvigorated with new cast members, rejigged musical arrangements and fresh bits of staging. It's less madly shambolic, but still infused with an urgent energy. A few thoughts on the murderous musical:
1. Heard on the day Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Sondheim's lyric about "another national anthem playing, not the one you cheer in the ballpark" hit almost too close to home. But the musical as a whole suggests that there are no simple answers to why a lone gunman (or gunwoman) aims to assassinate. Motives are often unclear, even in the muddled shooter's mind, so drawing hasty conclusions is unwise. If there is something in American culture that encourages this type of anarchic political violence, it existed long, long before the Tea Party came along.
2. Brazier's direction of the revue's musical numbers - taking a page from John Doyle's actor-musician stagings of Sondheim - has been rightly praised, but he is equally adept at wringing out hilarious or frightening performances in the dramatic scenes so exquisitely wrought by John Weidman. Indeed, the triumph of this production is how seamlessly the two halves of this bifurcated show come together into one devilish pitchfork, digging for the bodies hidden in the haystack of the American dream.
3. Among the newcomers, Lisa Horner ( My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding) is the stand-out, deliciously nuts as Sara Jane Moore, one of Gerald Ford's would-be killers. As William McKinley's assassin Leon Czolgosz, the silver-voiced Alex Fiddes's only crime is being too handsome for the role. Neither Kevin Dennis nor Janet Porter let the team down.
4. Graham Abbey's rants as would-be Nixon assassin Sam Byck, recorded on a cassette tape and mailed to Leonard Bernstein, are still worth the price of admission. Actually, just the way Santa-suited Abbey pathetically slinks to his car, kicks its headlights on and then furiously jams a picket sign into the trunk is worth it - we're all an inch away from this madness some days.
5. This is a true ensemble cast, but if I had to choose, my next top two would be Paul McQuillan's vain, sax-playing John Wilkes Booth and Steve Ross's bombastic, deluded Charles Guiteau.
6. As a mad carnival barker, Martin Julien is still the weakest link with his sloppy enunciation and patronizing American accent - but he sticks out less than before and his contribution on the banjo goes some way to making up for other shortcomings. As for Geoffrey Tyler's former volume problems in this acoustic environment, they are brilliantly solved by having his Balladeer carry around an olde-timey microphone.
7. Presidential assassinations may seem like willfully odd subject matter for a musical, but, in fact, the form fits the content perfectly - much more so now than it did when Assassins premiered in 1990. More than the immediate tragic events in Tucson, this second viewing summoned thoughts of the homeless man with the "golden voice," who is suddenly a spokesman for Kraft.
Today, the American Dream - the myth and the reality of it; in the United States proper and in countries, like ours, under its intoxicating influence - is primarily propagated through TV talent shows like American Idol, which catapult nobodies to fame. Assassins - thrust into infamy through a single performance with a gun - are the evil twins, the murderous mirror images of the likes of Susan Boyle and Clay Aiken. They're the American false idols, and they want to sing you a song you won't soon forget.
- Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Book by John Weidman
- Directed by Adam Brazier
- A BirdLand Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre co-production
- At the Theatre Centre in Toronto
Assassins runs until Jan. 23.