Assassins spans the century between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John F. Kennedy, and sets it against the madness of a carnie-nightmare game. In song and just a touch of dance, Sondheim’s musical makes the case that the assassins of four of the USA’s presidents are not merely insane, just misunderstood. One of the musical’s most impressive hallmarks is its music; just as you would expect of Sondheim, the author of seminal works such as West Side Story and Gypsy, in Assassins we are treated to a feast of music, all jaunty and overflowing with energy. The twang of the Balladeer’s banjo drags you into an atmosphere that is so undeniably American, and is complemented by the brass band lurking in the corner. Sondheim’s score soares and entertains; interlocking ensemble and solo pieces give the musical a texture and variety, whilst demarcating the characters of the play as individuals and parts of a whole.
The musical’s book by John Weidman is clever in the extreme. It is difficult to get over the concept of the play in itself as a piece of mastery; rather than a linear narrative, the musical’s creators have shifted this hodgepodge of assassins into a third, liminal space that exists outside the history we already know. As a result, we are given glimpses into motive, neurosis, and a brief treatise of American assassination history. Praise cannot be withheld from the musical’s director, Jamie Lloyd, who translates the musical into a cohesive work; the musical’s pace is unrelenting, but just as you need to catch your breath, it all slows down. The narrow traverse stage bursts with red, white and blue light, counterpointed by hanging bulbs simulating a carnival scene. A giant clown’s head and detached bumper car bookend the stage, turning the entire set creepy. It all sounds bananas but the musical works, better than one can imagine.
The cast is a dream: stars Catherine Tate (playing Sara Jane Moore, President Ford’s would-be murderer) and Aaron Tveit (as John Wilkes Booth) headline to draw the crowds, but the success of the musical is truly a team effort. Jamie Parker charms as the banjo-swinging Balladeer, and affects a lazy cowboy veneer. The Proprietor (Simon Lipkin) is as eerie as his melted clown makeup suggests, but the talent of Lipkin cannot be understated, especially his ability to mimic the voices of presidents to pinpoint accuracy. Also notable is Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, the charmingly psychotic assassin of President Garfield.
Perhaps the most effective direction in the musical are the moments the actors are waving around their guns. The proximity of the actors with audience results in moments of fear with the actors pointing very real-looking guns at you. This ingenious stage direction perhaps hints at the underlying narrative regarding America’s relationship with guns—and the uplifting music, a hallmark of musical theatre, only serves to enhance this. The result is a sense of a musical charting dark waters, and playing at frivolity. The musical makes you think that maybe, just maybe, the assassins too are victims of their environment, guns easy to reach, vulnerable to their psychosis. Sondheim and Weidman’s musical makes a strong case for the culpability of American culture in the murders of their presidents, playing into the insanity already existent in these assassins.
Note: Assassins is currently playing a sold out run at the Menier Chocolate Theatre until the 7thof March.