Assassins is a one act musical pagent featuring successful and would-be Presidential assassins. As a muiscal it’s a challenge for theatre companies in the States let alone in the UK. We spoke to SEDOS who recently staged the production in London. INTRODUCTION
Assassins is a one-act musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman that examines the nine real-life would be killers of the President of the United States. It is arguably one of Sondheim’s greatest works and won five Tony Awards and an Olivier for the Donmar production in 1992, but unfortunately, owing to its dark subject matter, it has been rather over-looked in comparison to other Sondheim works.
Even though ostensibly Assassins is a historical play, the plot is far from being a linear American history lesson. The lives of the prospective killers are interwoven and embellished with poetic license, allowing the characters to interact with and even encourage each other in the pursuit of their murderous endeavors. This gives the whole piece a surrealist feel, like flashes of half remembered real-life events intertwined within a dream.
Assassins is not a very long show, running for about 100 minutes without an interval, but it attempts to pack in an awful lot of American history, from 1865 to 1974, taking as its milestones the various assassination attempts on US presidents. It uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to produce a revue-style portrayal of the various men & women who attempted, successfully or otherwise, to assassinate presidents of the United States. The rules of time & space are bent, taking the audience on a nightmarish rollercoaster ride in which the assassins from different historical periods meet & interact, and in an intense final scene, inspire one of the most infamous acts in modern history, the assassination of President John F Kennedy, all in the name of the American Dream. The music varies to reflect the popular music of the eras depicted & its genius is that it celebrates musically the America that it attacks politically. Sondheim’s score amounts to a dazzling anthology of national styles, including folk ballads, Sousaesque marches, Copland-style anthems & in one extreme case, a cakewalk.
The show’s setting is a faded American fairground, where in the opening number, the Proprietor introduces the Assassins, a collection of social misfits. Some audience members may recognize a few of the individuals represented, but on the whole, if the title of the piece had not already forewarned us, we could be forgiven for wondering what this disparate group of eccentrics could possibly have in common with each other. The story goes on to examine each character’s motivation for wanting to kill their President. Underlying them all is a feeling that in one way or another, the American Dream has been denied to them, that somehow they haven’t been granted the “prize” that they were apparently promised. Each individual is encouraged by the Balladeer, a commentator who leads us through the story, to confront the fact that committing their
As an audience member, if you have a passing knowledge of American history, you may be familiar with some of the historical characters portrayed in the show, such as John Wilkes Booth who shot President Lincoln or Lee Harvey Oswald who killed John F. Kennedy. But many of the other Assassins are little known to Americans, let alone a British audience! However, there is so much more to Assassins than just American history. Like all good Sondheim musicals, you need to delve a little deeper to find its heart. Its rich score and perfectly balanced book investigates the darker side of the human condition, our desires for fame, success, revenge and love. It is these themes, that are portrayed with a great deal of humour as well as drama, which is what makes Assassins such an enthralling show. Never afraid of a challenge, Sedos, the self-styled “City of London’s premier amateur theatre company”, decided to put on their own production of the show this summer.
ONSTAGE crime has failed to assuage their personal failures, but finally they come together in the Texas Book Depository to implore Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK. They believe that this terrible act will serve to make them all immortal. The show’s ensemble serve as commentators and bystanders to the various assassination attempts & at the end of the show, during the beautiful song, Something Just Broke, we see the impact of the deaths of the murdered presidents on the American people.
CASTING Casting this show was very challenging, because it demanded a group of actors whose singing & acting abilities were nothing short of excellent, as well as an ensemble who could confidently deliver solo singing lines as well as nail a number of cameo roles. There are nine principal male roles and three principal female roles. Some roles, such as Sara Jane Moore & Charles Guiteau are darkly comic, while others, such as John Wilkes Booth & Leon Czolcosz require great dramatic authority. Squeaky Fromme, a disciple of Charles Manson, was completely unhinged while John Hinckley had an obsessive infatuation with Jodie Foster. Giuseppe Zangara has to have a superb tenor voice as well as be able to speak convincing Italian. Sam Byck is required to deliver two long but intensely dramatic monologues. Not exactly your classical musical theatre characters! The creative team was immensely lucky to be able to draw on an enormous pool of talent from both existing members of the company and new members who wanted to audition to be a part of this fantastic show. Some of the roles were not cast from the first round of auditions, but after a number of phone calls to various contacts whom the director knew from other companies, the show was fully cast within a few weeks. The show ended up with a full cast of 25 people.
REHEARSALS As all member of the production also had full time day jobs, it was important to schedule rehearsals around cast members’ other commitments. Early rehearsals were generally two evenings a week and every Sunday. There was an intensely collaborative relationship between Director Maria Waters & Musical Director Ryan Macaulay which insured that the music & dramatic scenes blended well. The choreographer, Ruth Sullivan, worked with the ensemble more, but there was overlap between all the roles in the creative team to ensure that the scenes ran together smoothly. The production team also wanted to ensure the authenticity of the show’s American identity, as this is so fundamental to the themes that the plot explores. Therefore, the
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accents used during both the spoken and the singing sections of the play where of great importance. The characters were from a variety of places, from Poland, Italy & Russia as well as different areas within the USA. A professional voice coach, Linda James, was brought into the production very early on to provide the actors with the necessary direction to ensure that they not only had a convincing accent, but also one that was accurate to the period and region that their character was from. There was also a workshop run by a highly experienced professional theatre & TV director which concentrated on helping the actors to quickly & effectively establish to the audience who they were & where they were from. The actors found this an immensely enjoyable & valuable experience.
COSTUMES/MAKE UP This presented an interesting challenge for Deborah Lean and Karen Lister in costume. The costumes & hair styles were based on photographs or illustrations of the real characters & were as authentic as possible, within a limited budget. The same applied to the ensemble, who were dressed in period costumes to represent the times & places that the assassination attempts took place in.
SET The creative team wanted something bright & colourful, to contrast ironically with the rather dark nature of the piece and decided for the back wall to become a two storey
high gaudily painted fairground House of Fun, which was somewhat in keeping with the show’s original shooting gallery theme. This included stairs up to the 13 piece band who were partly concealed by the set but still clearly visible to the audience. To maintain fluidity, rapid scene changes were realized using simple black boxes moved by the cast. The Winterflood Theatre is not the usual residence for Sedos productions and has a thrust stage. This provided an additional challenge to the production team, none of whom had worked in that space before. The audience sat around the stage on three sides. This brought the actors very close to the audience which really helped connect them to the characters. Incorporated into the Funhouse set was a 42” television screen on which specially designed computer animations were played at key moments in the story. These were created for Sedos by animator Giles Bowman and portrayed some of the assassination attempts, including the shooting of Lincoln, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The animations were extremely inventive, for example, the Kennedy animation followed the bullet from Oswald’s rifle to Kennedy’s head. The animation was perfectly coordinated to the live music using a click track devised by the musical director Ryan Macaulay.
SOUND & LIGHT The Winterflood Theatre has its own sound system, but as it was a venue unfamiliar to the production team, this presented its own set of complications. The engineer usually attached to the theatre was on holiday & there was a nightmare situation on Opening
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Night, where the sound system collapsed entirely 20 minutes before curtain up. Due to the heroic efforts of Sedos treasurer & sound operator, Craig Topp, & lighting designer Steve King, the problem was solved & the show went ahead. The team worked with a professional sound designer to design the sound plot & then from opening night, the show was operated by our own very experienced sound designer Craig. There were also many complicated sound cues, as the show is full of gunshots which have to be coordinated with expert precision. This difficult job fell to our producer Matt Hudson. Lighting design was kept fairly simple using most of the kit which was already present in the Winterflood theatre. There were also festoons of lights strung above the stage & on the Funhouse which flashed to signal a successful assassination. The electrocution of Zangara & ballad of Guiteau were particular highlights. There was a stark uplight in front of Zangara sitting on the electrocution chair creating chilling dramatic effects when he sang. The Ballad of Guiteau led Charles Guiteau up the stairs to the scaffold & there were different lighting effects to contrast the dramatic focus on the noose held above his head by the Proprietor versus the demented dance which he performed in bright coloured circus like lighting.
MARKETING Sedos set up a marketing subcommittee at the start of 2010 and someone from the committee is allocated to each show to ensure that the production gets a great campaign, but also that it links in with all other Sedos marketing activity. (Each year Sedos performs around 10 separate productions!) Marketing subcommittee member Adrian Johnson took on the responsibility of marketing lead for Assassins, but also received assistance from both other members of the subcommittee and the production team alike.
on the 4th July. This offer proved to be a great success and provided a welcomed jump in early ticket sales. As with a lot of modern day marketing campaigns, a large amount of attention was given to promoting the show over the Internet. This included email shots to Sedos members, other local amateur theatre companies and members of the Sondheim Society. Followers of Sedos on Facebook were also provided with regular updates of the show’s rehearsals and in the 10 days working up to opening night were given an introduction to each of the real-life Assassins and the actors who would be portraying them on stage. The show exceeded budgeted sales by around 100 tickets for the run of the show. Three nights were sold out, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night’s gala night, for which tickets cost a little extra and included a free programme and a glass of bubbly at a local pub after that night’s performance.
CONCLUSION Assassins provided members of Sedos with enormous challenges, both in terms of the script and score, and also the unfamiliarity of performance space. They were fortunate however to be able to draw on an enormous wealth of talented and experienced individuals from both existing and new Sedos members and the finished result was something of which all those involved should be very proud. Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman Performed by Sedos, the City of London’s premiere amateur dramatic theatre company. 9 – 13 August 2011. Photos courtesy of Michael Smith Photography. Performance rights available in the UK through Josef Weinberger
Adrian designed and produced the artwork for the flyers and these were passed to cast and production team for distribution. Flyers were also give out at Sedos’ residential theatre the Bridewell, local City businesses, and musical-related shops in London, as well as the City of London’s tourist office. Sedos member Michael Smith took the show’s wonderful rehearsal and production shots, coming three times to rehearsals; firstly to the read through, one evening at Sedos’ official rehearsal space, Ocean House, and the dress rehearsal at the Winterflood Theatre. An early boost to sales was generated by an Independence Day themed prize draw. The box office for the show had only been open for a week or so and people were given the opportunity to win a bottle of champagne if they purchased their tickets before midnight