“Everybody’s got the right to their dreams” is how we are introduced to
nine assassins - or would-be assassins - of American presidents, from
Abe Lincoln all the way up to Ronald Reagan.
This seems a somewhat
clumsy sentiment in the hands of such a master of the musical theatre
as Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics of this 1990 show
(book by John Weidman); but this is a more than usually challenging
subject, even for him.
The main problem is that by choosing as your
characters nine people from different periods in history, only two of
whom appear to have actually known each other, you are setting yourself
a huge challenge in making them interact in any meaningful sense. That
Sondheim succeeds as well as he does is a sign of his particular
genius, but it makes for a show that strains somewhat desperately for a
It also makes for a show that is a little hard on its audience, with an
interval-free performance of two hours’ duration. That gripe aside,
there is a great deal to relish in this production by Michael
Strassen. For starters, it's superbly orchestrated (by Richard Bates) and wonderfully sung.
The main conceit is that the assassins form an immortal confederacy who
urge others to emulate them in order to keep their deeds, and their
names, alive. Thus John Wilkes Booth emerges from the shadows of the
Texas Book Depository to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald not to kill
himself, as he had intended, but to turn a rifle on JFK instead.
tone is arch, wry and detached – and Sondheim has to work very hard to
inject passion into the proceedings, and to give us a little humanity
to hang on to. The result is some hugely enjoyable performances, but a
piece of theatre that can never really get under the skin of so many
In particular, Nick Holder impresses as a sweaty Samuel Byck, who
wants to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House; so too does John
Barr’s clownish Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield for
thwarting his ambition to be US Ambassador to France. Glyn Kerslake
is self-righteous, smooth and magisterial as Booth, and Nolan
Frederick’s Balladeer links the stories together with panache.
This may not be Sondheim at the peak of his form, but it is dark,
funny, ambitious, and another triumph of musical staging at this