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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Sondheim, ‘Assassins’ and a killer profit for theater

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“Assassins” is a tough musical to like, however possibly even a more durable one to neglect.

This present by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is constructed round a rogue’s gallery of notorious Individuals who tried, in some instances efficiently, to kill the president of the US. As an outline, “audacious” appears far too tame for a musical that searches for the pep in pathological and even makes treason tuneful.

Cognitive dissonance is constructed into a piece that saves a few of its prettiest melodies for probably the most murderous maniacs. Frank Wealthy, in his overview of the 1991 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, known as it “an antimusical about antiheroes.” The present was successful off-Broadway, nevertheless it took 13 years for this disturbing vaudeville to make it to Broadway.

A deliberate 2001 Broadway manufacturing, directed by Joe Mantello, was postponed due to the 9/11 terrorist assaults. With the nation nonetheless smoldering, how may audiences be anticipated to end up for a musical that features one tried murderer who wished to hijack a aircraft and crash it into the White Home?

If historical past all the time appears to be bumping into “Assassins,” it’s in all probability as a result of the darkish cultural currents that give rise to John Wilkes Sales space, Lee Harvey Oswald and their copycat sort are regularly being replenished in a nation that enjoys dividing its residents into winners and losers.

The tumultuous historical past of “Assassins” is recalled in “Inform the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ‘Assassins,’” a vibrant recorded profit for New York’s Basic Stage Firm, conceived and directed by creative director John Doyle, certainly one of Sondheim’s most creative up to date interpreters.

Doyle was in rehearsal with “Assassins” final 12 months when New York efficiency venues had been pressured to shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The present will reopen the off-Broadway theater later this 12 months, and this documentary (obtainable until Monday) is each a salute to the musical and to the scrappy brilliance of theater artists, whose survival is being examined like by no means earlier than.

How will the present play after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol? Probably not as an exhibition of deranged, fame-seeking extremists however as a window into widespread American grievance. “Everyone’s Obtained the Proper,” the musical’s opening (and shutting) quantity, seems to be at what can occur when the federal government is blamed for standing in the way in which of a disaffected citizen’s pursuit of happiness.

In her preface to the documentary, Hillary Clinton calls consideration to the dire state of affairs of theaters, like CSC, that are struggling to resuscitate themselves after being darkish for therefore lengthy. If anybody has the correct to be unsettled by “Assassins,” it’s the previous secretary of State, senator and first woman, who, regardless of all of the obstacles thrown in her path, got here inside a hair’s breadth of changing into our first lady president. However with the authority of somebody who is aware of the darkish underbelly of American politics, she makes the case for a musical that “dares its viewers to see our nation and assess our nationwide myths by means of the eyes of our villains as a substitute of our heroes.”

Essentially the most joyous facet of this documentary is in watching forged members from the off-Broadway premiere, the Broadway manufacturing and the upcoming CSC revival examine notes about their characters and musical numbers. In addition they sing collectively over Zoom, lending their completely different colours to songs that steadiness sincerity and sendup on the barrel of a gun.

“Inform the Story” captures time itself in juxtaposing actors from completely different generations in the identical roles. Whereas the older performers provide us a style of what they will nonetheless magnificently do, we’re additionally given glimpses of their flip within the “Assassins” highlight.

What makes the present tough and forward of its time is a operating theme. The problem, nevertheless, solely appears to reinforce the savor.

To additional whet our curiosity, there’s a quick pattern of “The Ballad of Sales space” between Will Swenson (forged as Charles Guiteau, President James A. Garfield’s murderer, in Doyle’s manufacturing) and Audra McDonald, as husband and spouse conclude this system with a ultimate pitch for donations. Somewhat extra McDonald and I may need transformed from an “Assassins” agnostic to a holy curler.

I’ve seen the present solely as soon as, in the course of the 2004 Broadway premiere at Studio 54. I admired the conceptual ambition and intelligent craft, however the present left me desirous to race residence and take a bathe. However first impressions with Sondheim musicals aren’t final impressions, and I’ve been ready for an additional alternative to come across a piece that cracks open an American psychosis that’s entangled with our nationwide faith, superstar.

Sondheim, nobly bearing his 91 years, makes an look on the finish of the documentary with Weidman to replicate on the peculiarly American nature of this story. However he maybe summed up the musical’s intention most clearly in “Look, I Made a Hat,” the second of his two-volume collected lyrics and attendant commentaries, when he concluded:

“How may one inconsequential indignant little man trigger such common grief and anguish? Extra vital, why would he?

“That’s what ‘Assassins’ is about.”

The return of this recalcitrant musical is an encouraging signal that the theater gained’t be pulling its punches when it lastly comes again.

‘Inform the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins”‘

The place: Streaming through Basic Stage Firm

When: By 8 p.m. Monday

Tickets: Free (donations accepted)

Information: www.classicstage.org



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