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Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’ gives human face to history’s villains

Guest Reporter

Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 17:12


Katie de Heras/The Miscellany News

Rebecca Schulbank-Smith ’13 and Liz McLean ’13 rehearse during “Hell week” at the Susan Stein Shiva Theater. The show casts a humorous light on some of American history’s darkest moments.

Rarely does the presidential assassin get his or her due. Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth are both disgraced in the American history book. But Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins puts a new twist on their fates, giving an unbiased ear to their side of the story. The revue-style show brings together nine assassins from throughout American history to meet, interact and inspire each other—and reenact parts of their stories. The political musical will take place on Friday, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater.

“It is about both successful and would-be presidential assassins through American history,” explained dramaturg Talia Feldberg ’16. “Assassins is based on history and features historical characters, although much liberty is taken.”

These nine characters include the well-known historical figures like John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Other characters include Balladeer (the narrator) played by Ryan Norris ’14, and The Proprietor (the man that sets all of the assassins’ acts into motion) acted by Brett Merriam ’15.

Bending the rules of time and space, Assassins offers an interesting and humorous depiction of these mysterious people. “These characters never actually met, and lived in different times and places. In the show, however, they are able to interact with each other in a world that isn’t defined by the constraints of place and time,” Norris said. He thinks it is interesting to experience a story in this world, from the perspective of villains.

“Assassins” mixes the serious with the sarcastic. Feldberg likes the way that the play presents historical events fairly. “We are definitely inspired by the fact that the show portrays real life events with real people, and we did research on that and discussed it,” she said. “The historical events, such as the assassinations themselves, are portrayed with great accuracy.” 

Merriam thinks that the play offers the audience a chance to reconsider those assassins. “For historical purposes, we learn about presidential assassinations, but we never really look into the minds of the assassins. What’s so interesting about this show is that it portrays these assassins extremely matter-of-factly, without any criticism or bias,” Merriam said. This leaves the assassin’s actions for the audience to judge. “Assassins asks us to consider their motivations in a new light, and take notice of the outside factors that may have influenced their actions,” Feldberg said.

“These people’s stories reveal a great deal about the United States and the many cracks that lie beneath the surface,” said director and organizer, Julia Sharpe-Levine ’14. She thinks the musical’s core issue is about the facade of the American dream. 

“The play suggests that the blame for these repeated assassination attempts lies partially in the hands of those who teach children from a very young age that in America, your dreams not only can come true,” she mused, “but should come true, and when they don’t, someone is to blame.”

The opening song proclaims, “Everybody’s/Got the right/To be happy,” as all American people are ostensibly granted by the American dream. “Don’t stay mad/Life’s not as bad/As it seems,” continues the barbed opening number. The play suggests throughout that the assassins are victims that fall through the cracks. 

“America promises its people that anything is within their grasp if they work for it. The assassins feel failed by their country and their lives, and seek to kill the president as a means to achieve their goals,” wrote Feldberg in an emailed statement. 

Charles Guiteau, played by Aidan Kahn ’14 is an example. Historically, Guiteau assassinated U.S. President James A. Garfield in 1881. As a lawyer, he had an unsuccessful career, with most of his cases resulting in enraged clients and judicial criticism. 

Guiteau believed himself to be largely responsible for Garfield’s victory in the 1880 presidential election because of a supportive speech he wrote for Garfield. Guiteau expected favors and an award for his actions; when they were denied, he concocted the idea of assassinating a president.

“He’s a diehard optimist and an opportunist. He represents that aspect of the classic American spirit to which we very often attribute a great deal of our success as a nation,” wrote Kahn in an emailed statement. “However, Guiteau in this play is all about the dark side, the extreme side, of that character and it’s interesting to work on. I also appreciate his manic energy. “

Merriam described his character, The Proprietor, as less a character and more a personified theme. “He’s the man that sets all of the assassins’ acts into motion and pulls the strings from behind the scenes,” Merriam wrote in an emailed statement. 

“The Proprietor is a fun but tricky role because at times he subtly watches the narrative and at other times he boldly inserts himself into the scene. Of all the roles, he is probably the least easily understood, which makes finding his character all the more fun.”

Norris’ character sings ballads about the assassins from a removed point of view for the duration of Assassins. “For most of the show, he reminds the audience and characters of the typical American Dream that the assassins failed to recognize and achieve,” Norris wrote. “But by the end of the show, the lines between this story-teller and the story are blurred, and the character comes to serve a very different purpose. You’ll have to come see the show if you want to know more.”

Sharpe-Levine thinks the show not only reflects history, but is also applicable to today. She picked up this play for both its gravity and the empathy it generates within the audience. She wrote, “Though our generation can’t necessarily relate to the feelings that come with experiencing the assassination of a President, the frustrations and personal tragedies that are revealed in each character in Assassins are nearly indistinguishable from those of today.”

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