Assassins, a new production from the Acting Loft, brings some unlikely characters to the stage. This dark comedy tells the stories of those who succeeded and those who failed in their attempts to assassinate U.S. presidents.
John Wilkes Booth, the first presidential assassin, acts as a ringleader in this throwback to vaudeville, which focuses on the lives of some of America’s lousiest citizens. Because everyone knows a bit about more famed assassins, like Booth and John Hinckley, their roles are the smallest in the musical, while the lives of lesser-known villains, like Sara Jane Moore and Giuseppe Zangara, are developed. The musical ends with the Kennedy assassination, which was the first of these brutal murders to be televised and, as a result, is most vivid in people’s minds. The play’s music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim.
The fact that the musical centers around men and women who are rightly reviled in history means that directing it takes extreme tactical skill. It was this challenge that inspired Chris Courage, artistic director at the Acting Loft. Courage saw the musical in its original off-Broadway showing.
What is interesting about the show, according to Courage, is that it is a wicked comedy. The dialogue between the assassins, who all meet and discuss what they have done, is funny and makes a mockery of them. But the actors portraying the assassins must act completely serious in their roles. Courage said it would be easy to make the play over-the-top funny but he didn’t want to give the assassins humor, as that would make them more likable. He doesn’t want people walking away from the show thinking these people weren’t as bad as they really were. So the actors are completely serious, but the audience finds itself laughing at how misguided they really were. This dichotomy is what gives the musical its humor.
It also puts a great deal of emphasis on the actors, who must perform a balancing act. The musical is based on history and, for some reason, men are more likely to attempt assassination. Therefore 11 strong male singers were needed for the part. In southern New Hampshire this can be a problem as male actors are in short supply. But Courage said he had to turn people away.
“They would tell me that they’ve always wanted to do this show but no theater company had the guts to put it on,” Courage said.
Courage said each of the actors has done intense research for his part.
“I did quite a bit of research,” said Nathan Barnes, who plays Booth. “He is a fascinating character. When you’re playing a part like that you want to bring yourself to the role but you also want to incorporate history.”
Barnes read some of Booth’s final diaries and found himself crying. This was shocking to Barnes, whose views are completely different than Booth’s. The man’s complexity — Booth truly believed what he did was right, yet, in the end, felt remorse — is something Barnes will bring to the character.
He is not the only actor to do significant research. Courage said usually when he meets with a cast the first time, they talk over the script and listen to the music. But this group had already done their research, learned their lines and was singing the music.
It’s a good thing they got a head start, as the play, which is about two hours and fifteen minutes, has a few challenges. For example, Broderick Lang, who plays Sam Byck (who tried to assassinate Richard Nixon), has a 14-minute monologue.
“Sondheim throws every rule and convention out the window,” Courage said, “which is why he is such a pleasure to produce.”
The musical has had its fair share of bumps along the road. It made its off-Broadway debut in 1990. But there was a setback. The opening coincided with Operation Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War. Due to its sensitive nature, many critics thought the production was in bad taste.
When it opened in London, Sondheim added a song to the end called “Something Just Broke,” which John Weidman, who wrote the book, said, “gives the ensemble, who are treated comically earlier in the piece, an opportunity to express the simple, uncomplicated grief and raw, unresolved emotions which we all experience in response to these vicious, horrific acts,” according to a history of the show’s production by Andrew Lowry.
The musical returned to the U.S. and was set to make its Broadway debut on Sept. 17, 2001. Naturally, no one could have predicted what happened on Sept. 11 and again the musical’s material seemed inappropriate. This time those involved decided to shut down, costing them $400,000. But eventually, in 2004, Assassins opened on Broadway, featuring a cast that included Neil Patrick Harris, and won several Tony Awards.
Courage said the production can inform people about history and perhaps move them to do their own research about interesting historical facts after they leave. For example, Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, shot President William McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Historians say it wasn’t the bullet that killed McKinley but the gangrene it caused. Ironically, one of the products being shown at the Expo: the first X-ray machine, which no one thought to use.
“If you’re a history buff, you’ll love this show,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the show does a great job of revealing what was going on in the minds of these assassins but also discussing the impact their actions had on America.
“Chris [Courage] is a real visionary, and he brought his own take to this piece,” Barnes said.