Stephen Sondheim's Assassins first opened for a limited run on Broadway in December 1990. Its London debut, at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992, won the year's Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.
The play chronicles the sad tale of presidential assassination in the United States. On one stage - which is designed as a macabre shooting gallery lined with cartoon portraits of the ill-fated presidents - we're confronted with every successful and wannabe assassin in American history, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. Through a mixture of song, charged dramatic dialogue and biting, comic interludes, we jump back and forth through the century to discover the individuals' motivations, climaxing with the critical last moments before Lee Harvey Oswald shoots JFK.
Who but Stephen Sondheim could have conceived such a dark and grisly subject as a musical? For those unfamiliar with Sondheim musicals, do not go expect any light and lavish song-and-dance extravaganza. Certainly, the music is there - supported by a cast of fine singers - and there are some very funny scenes. But it is a dark humour and underlying it are some serious political issues. The overriding theme here is alienation. The assassins are individuals, excluded from the American dream, who are angry and desperate for a solution to their problems.
The cast are very strong both in their singing and acting. They succeed in evoking great sympathy as well as horror for the assassins. Peter Straker's Charles Guiteau (who murdered James Garfield) is especially moving as he climbs the gallows to be hanged, pleading with the crowd for understanding. On the lighter side, Nigel Williams' Samuel Byck works himself into a wonderful fever as he plans to crash a plane into Richard Nixon's White House 'because there isn't a Santa Claus'. And Fiona Dunn and Sharon Eckman win lots of laughs as the scatter-brained women (Charles Manson's girlfriend Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme and radical housewife Sara Jane Moore) who try unsuccessfully to shoot Gerald Ford. Paul Keating also turns in a fine performance as the Balladeer who appeals to the assassins' moral conscience.
Assassins is now extended until 17 August at the New End. Philip Cox and Dominic Curtis will be replacing, respectively, Peter Straker and Paul Keating. Producer David Babani is also reported to be aiming for a West End transfer and a possible cast recording. This would certainly be well-deserved as such a high quality production should not be wasted. However, I fear that relocation to a larger theatre might diminish some of the power and intimacy which the New End allows.
For more information on the playwright and his plays, check out the Stephen Sondheim Society web site. And for an informative lesson on the individual tales, check out The Presidents and the Assassins.
Terri Paddock, July 1997