Surely it’s not politic to fashion a musical about real-life murders, as in presidential assassinations, rather than from, say, fictional, “Sweeney Todd”-like slasher killings. To cast dark humor and Swiftian, “Modest Proposal”-style satire into such a musical would be not only crude and grossly insensitive but nigh impossible, right?
Bullets through brains – funny?
John Sbordone, co-founder and director of Palm Coast’s City Repertory Theatre, offers a rejoinder to any nay-sayers who may squawk about the opening play of CRT’s 2022-23 season: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which runs Friday Sept. 23 through Oct. 2.
“I would invite them to come and watch the Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore scene and not laugh their asses off,” Sbordone says, referencing the real-life, would-be assassins of President Gerald Ford.
Along with “Assassins,” City Rep’s upcoming season will include the 1892 farce “Charley’s Aunt,” the revue “A King & Two Queens,” the jukebox musical “Honky Tonk Angels,” George C. Wolfe’s often satirical takes on African-American life in “The Colored Museum,” the Moliere adaptation “Scapino!” and the Arthur Miller drama “All My Sons.”
“Assassins,” the 1990 play with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman (which they based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert Jr.), weaves the true-life histories of nine presidential assassins and would-be assassins into a bizarro musical fantasy. The characters include John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, the shooters of Ronald Reagan and Ford, and other rogues. (And yes, Sbordone says, the play takes liberties with history.)
The musical opens as a character known as the Proprietor runs a twisted, shooting-gallery carnival game in which the targets are American presidents. After coaxing passersby – those historical, soon-to-be assassins — to play, he outfits them with guns.
The assassins then frolic, fret, flirt and fume in various settings and groupings across time and space: Booth chats with Oswald, John Hinckley meets Squeaky, the gang coaxes Oswald to do his heinous deed, etc.
The character known as the Balladeer — who, Sbordone says, “is trying to right wrongs of the world” — sings some of the assassins’ back stories. The Balladeer also provides wry commentary, as when she pooh-poohs Booth’s claim that his murder of Abraham Lincoln stemmed from a noble cause. Instead, the Balladeer says, everyone just thought that Booth, a stage actor, was merely pissed off by his bad reviews.
Meanwhile, Sondheim’s score reflects the styles of the popular music of the various eras depicted, as well as traditional patriotic American music.
“Assassins” opened Off-Broadway in 1990 to mixed and negative reviews, but a 2004 Broadway production caught fire and won five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
In a 1991 New York Times story, Sondheim admitted he expected his play would be controversial, but he was defiant about his work: “There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals . . . We’re not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.”
“If you love theater, this play will keep you on the edge of your seat,” Sbordone says. “It pulls you in 100 directions. That’s the kind of show it is. It will get you thinking. It can make you angry. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll pull you in opposite directions and you’ll be going ‘Oh my God, this is about assassins – why do I feel like I like that guy?’ ”
“Assassins” presents a peculiar challenge for actors, Sbordone says: “As an actor, you can’t hate your character. As an actor, you take John Wilkes Booth and you take him at his word: He is saving the country. He is killing the despot. He is changing the balance of the world by doing this and making it a better place. I keep emphasizing with the actors: ‘Be charming. You’re angry and you’re on your mission — but charm.’ ”
The characters of “Assassins” shoot their way through American history, and include:
- John Wilkes Booth (assassinated President Abraham Lincoln), performed by Beau Wade.
- Charles Guiteau (assassinated President James Garfield) — Michael Funaro.
- Leon Czolgosz (assassinated President William Mckinley) — Cameron Hodges.
- Giuseppe Zangara (attempted to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt) — Everett Clark.
- Lee Harvey Oswald (assassinated President John F. Kennedy) — Austin Branning.
- Samuel Byck (attempted to assassinate President Richard Nixon by trying to hijack a commercial jetliner which he intended to crash into the White House) — Austin Branning.
- Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (one-time member of the Manson family, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford) — Philipa Rose.
- Sara Jane Moore (attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford two weeks after Fromme) — Monica Clark.
- John Hinckley (attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan) — Nick Sok.
- Plus The Balladeer (Laniece Fagundes), The Proprietor (Bob Pritchard), Emma Goldman (Julia Truilo), and Young Boy (Tatum Oliver). The musical director and accompanist is keyboardist Benjamin Beck.
Here’s a look at City Repertory Theatre’s 2022-23 season. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, except “A King & Two Queens” and “The Colored Museum” will have an additional 7:30 p.m. Thursday performance.
Tickets are $30 adults and $25 students for “Assassins” and “Honky Tonk Angels.” All other shows are $20 adults and $15 students. Season tickets are $150. Individual show tickets and season subscriptions are available online at crtpalmcoast.com or by calling 386-585-9415. Tickets also will be available at the venue just before curtain time.
Dates in the list below are the opening and final performance of each production.
* “Assassins” – Sept.23-Oct. 2. City Rep bills this Sondheim play as “perhaps the most controversial musical ever written,” while adding it is “bold, original, disturbing and alarmingly funny.”
* “Charley’s Aunt” – Oct. 28-Nov. 6. This farce by Brandon Thomas debuted in Suffolk, England, in early 1892 and then opened in London later that year, where it broke the then-current record for longest-running play worldwide, going for 1,466 performances. The farce landed on Broadway in 1893 and later toured internationally, and has been revived ever since as well as adapted for films and musicals.
The play tells the story of Jack and Charley, two college friends who desperately need a chaperone, so they coax a roommate to pretend to be Charley’s rich aunt from Brazil. Chaos erupts when the real aunt arrives.
* “A King & Two Queens – Dec. 1-4. Sbordone and Palm Coast-area writer Susan Slater “assembled” this lighthearted “royal revue” centered on the theme of kings and queens, including “the foolish Marie Antionette,” the “cunning” Eleanor of Aquitaine and Shakespearean kings.
* “Honky Tonk Angels” – Jan. 13-22, 2023. This jukebox musical by Ted Swindley, creator of “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” uses 30 classic country songs, such as “Stand by Your Man,” “9 to 5” and “Harper Valley PTA,” to tell the tale of three women pursuing their honky tonk dreams in Nashville.
* “The Colored Museum” – Feb. 16-19, 2023. In this 1986 play, George C. Wolfe, writer of “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” deploys satire, song, poetry and drama to examine African-American life, culture and mores. The play’s 11 “exhibits” – that is, short vignettes – include “The Hairpiece,” “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and “Cooking’ with Aunt Ethel,” in which a cooking show host sings the recipe of how to “bake yourself a batch of Negros.”
* “Scapino!” — March 17-26, 2023. For this 1974 comedy, Jim Dale and Frank Dunlop adapted the 1671 play “Les Fourberies de Scapin” (“Scapin the Schemer”) by the French playwright Molière. The tale follows the servant Scapino as he contrives to manipulate his master Geronte and his family.
* “All My Sons” — April 28-May 7, 2023. In Arthur Miller’s 1946 drama, family intrigue intertwines with subterfuge involving a military construction contract that led to a deadly outcome.