By Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman
If you thought that Mel Brooks with his comic depiction of Nazis in The Producers was taking musical theatre into dangerously dark areas, then have a look at where Stephen Sondheim takes the genre in his Assassins. Written in 1990, Assassins is a disturbing yet hilariously funny look at the dark side of the American Dream. It takes the form of a vaudeville show, with as central characters the nine men and women who tried to (and sometimes did) assassinate the President of the United States.
Improbable as it sounds, Sondheim brings the nine assassins (from Booth who shot Lincoln to Oswald who shot Kennedy) together in a series of scenes and musical numbers that are both insanely funny and characteristically confrontational. This is Sondheim at his most subversive, using popular American musical forms such as the civil war ballad, the spiritual, the anthem, the barbershop quartet, the pop ballad, in incongruous ways to tell the stories of these psychopaths and losers.
What pulls the show together and prevents it from becoming just a series of loosely related scenes is the finale, with its chilling re-enactment of Oswald’s last moments in the Texas School Book Depository before he pulls the trigger. As the other assassins urge him on, he makes the decision that unites him with them and all their perverted ideals and wasted dreams. It is a powerful moment that seems to mark the death, not only of Kennedy, but of the American Dream.
Taking on a Sondheim musical is always a challenge and this show is no exception. It demands at least nine leading actor/singers, a very versatile chorus and an orchestra. Slides need to be integrated into the action (always a nightmare) and there are a lot of guns (even more of a nightmare if things go wrong). Fortunately, in this first production by the new Warehaus Theatre Company, none of these challenges proves a problem.
The director, Kat Henry, and the musical director, James Dobinson, have pulled a lot of talent together for this production which is slick and professional. The cast is uniformly strong, with each of the leads relishing the opportunity to show both the comic and dangerous aspects of their characters, while at the same time handling the demands of Sondheim’s tricky harmonies and rhythms. There are some deliciously zany scenes and these are given full value, and if a more discriminating ear then mine could find any musical weaknesses, I have to say they didn’t register with me.
There are no memorable tunes in this show; as always with Sondheim, what remains with you long after the curtain falls are the ideas. But, disturbing as these ideas are, Assassins is great fun. It is a long way from Brig-a’Doonor the ubiquitous Joseph and his dreary whatever; but if you like clever music, witty lyrics, incisive social observance and, of course, if you love Sondheim, this production is a must. Warehaus has made a promising start and it will be very interesting to see what they can come up with next.
Directed by Kat Henry
Playing until 18 June 2005: 8pm
Running time: (no interval) 90 minutes