If William Shakespeare is the king of theatre, then Stephen Sondheim must be its queen. The fabulously gay composer and lyricist behind the iconic musicals West Side Story, Gypsy and others has been delighting audiences across the globe for over half a century. Musical theatre nerds can sample one of his lesser-known works, Assassins, which returns to the Theatre Centre this week, after last year’s sold-out run.
“I’ve done both Shakespeare and Sondheim, and there are a lot of similarities,” says Assassins actor Steve Ross. “Shakespeare wrote all of the clues about how to do his plays in the voices of his characters. Sondheim does the same thing with his music.”
First shown off-Broadway in 1990, Assassins is a revue-style musical about the various people who have tried, successfully or not, to assassinate a president of the United States. When it hit Broadway in 2004 (with gay actor Neil Patrick Harris playing Lee Harvey Oswald), it walked away with five Tonys and heaps of critical praise. Despite the accolades, Assassins is still one of Sondheim’s least performed works.
“Maybe it’s because the subject matter is darker than some of his other shows,” Ross says. “It’s surprising to me because with our last run, the subject matter was actually a big pull in getting people through the door. We sold out our entire run after the opening week.”
In addition to packing the house every night, the company also garnered a Dora Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical, as well as nominations for director Adam Brazier and actors Paul McQuillan and Trish Lindstrom. Since so many people were turned away last time, it only made sense to mount a second run.
“I’m so excited to be working on this material again,” Ross says. “It was sad to see five members of the cast depart. But it’s also exciting to have five new faces in the room and the new set of questions that go along with that.”
Most people have heard of Oswald, who shot JFK, and John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln, but many of the other individuals in Assassins will be unfamiliar to the average theatregoer.
“I was pretty surprised to learn about all of these other characters,” Ross says. “I had no idea there were so many people who tried to kill the president.”
Ross’s character, Charles Guiteau, shot President James Garfield in a train station in the summer of 1881.
“He just walked up to Garfield and shot him in the back,” Ross says. “I don’t think it occurred to anyone back then that the president would get shot. It makes sense that as time went on there were fewer successful attempts, since the security has gotten much tighter.”
In an age when the US president travels with an extensive security detail and gives speeches behind bulletproof glass, an assassination is unlikely. Still, with the rise of the radical rightwing, the idea that someone might try to kill Barack Obama no longer seems completely far-fetched.
“Now that we have a black president, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more crazies coming out of the woodwork,” Ross says. “Especially with the sort of rhetoric that Sarah Palin has introduced, using gun-based imagery when she talks about fighting the Democrats. I know she’s trying to promote herself as a woman who shoots an elk and then eats it for dinner. But all it takes is one person taking it the wrong way and then we have history.”
There’s precedent, but it comes from the other side of the political tracks. Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, was inspired by a speech given by lefty anarchist Emma Goldman. Both are characters in the show.
Ross’s character claims that God spoke to him, giving him a divine assignment.
Aside from potentially opening a fertile political dialogue, audiences can also expect Assassins to give them a good night out.
“This show has an incredible story told by amazing performers,” Ross says. “We don’t have a falling chandelier or a giant helicopter, but people really get sucked into the performances. Even though we only have three set pieces that we roll around ourselves.”
by Stephen Sondheim
January 8-23 (previews Jan 6 & 7)
The Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen St W
Tickets at artsboxoffice.ca or 416-504-5729