If you haven’t seen the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, you’re not alone. Neither has D. Scott Glasser who directs the story of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and other killers of presidents opening April 11 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
I somehow skipped it when Chanticleer did the only metro area production back in 1994. And fewer saw it when Bellevue East High School presented a one-act cutting for a play festival in 2005. East won awards as did the student playing John Hinckley, but its selection was believed to play a part in the director’s reassignment.
The local history reflects its larger history: minimal success when it opened off Broadway in 1991 during the first Gulf War, not well-received later in London, and not often produced even in 2011. So the UNO treatment may be your only chance to catch it here in the wake of its very successful 2004 Broadway revival that won five Tony awards with Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald and the Balladeer.
Jim Eisenhardt, the retired South High drama teacher and Omaha Community Playhouse board member, “loved” that version when he saw the former Doogie Howser and current “How I Met Your Mother” star in New York City.
At UNO, the Sondheim musical with book by John Weidman “kept coming up” during planning for future seasons, Glasser recalled, “and we’d say, ‘Not this time.’” After recent emphasis on living women playwrights, “We wanted to do something very American, about who we are.”
As a synopsis put it, “Ultimately, Assassins is a nightmarish but hauntingly familiar reflection on what it takes to achieve the American Dream.”
It centers around John Wilkes Booth, played by Ben Beck. The infamous actor, called the handsomest man of his time, was no misfit loner when he killed President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater.
Booth haunts the others, including the slayers of Presidents Garfield and McKinley as well as those who failed to kill FDR, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. At the start, they gather at a carnival shooting gallery where a barker urges, “C’mere and kill a President!” At the end, all gather in the Texas Book Depository and coax Oswald to go down in history by ending the life of President Kennedy.
If all this sounds unbearably creepy, it didn’t turn out that way for Omahans cast in the Chanticleer show. “The cast was apprehensive, especially opening weekend,” recalls Roxanne Wach, who played Sarah Jane Moore, whose attempt on President Ford closely followed the attempt by “Squeaky” Fromme. “We didn’t know what to expect or how people would react.”
Instead, “The show drew large audiences and was very well-received.” Reviews by Jim Minge in the World-Herald and Eric Stoakes in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil paid little attention to controversy.
Todd Brooks, as Oswald and the balladeer, credited Chanticleer with being “ahead of its time,” but didn’t see any concerns about “glorification or not of assassins,” rather “a well-written account of a minor segment of our world. Their concerns were real. Their methods to right injustice were extreme and definitely not the right way to advance change.”
He ended up “amazed at the respect the audience had for the piece,” and calls it “a great show that will always have a special place in my resume of productions.” Wach says, “The cast was very tight. It’s probably the cast I’m most in contact with 18 years after the production.”
The story concluded when the cast “actually aimed our guns at the audience and fired, which was really difficult for me. I remember watching the audience as we did that and it was powerful,” Wach recalls.
As for the guns, the New York Times wrote that Sondheim “has real guts. He isn’t ashamed to identify with his assassins to the extreme point where he will wave a gun in a crowded theater, artistically speaking, if that’s what is needed to hit the target of American complaceny.”
Press information from UNO theater publicist Sarah Fogarty mentions that extensive research went into historical accuracy for the guns, and required securing “the permission of numerous departments on campus” to allow gunfire and weapons.
Glasser notes that revisions, including the addition of the song, “Something Just Broke,” changed the Tony-winning revival. The added song allows citizens to remember “what they were doing” when the president was shot. Paul Boesing directs the music, including “Gun Song,” “Everybody Has the Right” and “Another National Anthem.” Scenic design and technical direction are by Robbie Jones.
Glasser dug for a full day into Sondheim’s thick Assassins file at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Beck, the student playing Booth, also had the opportunity for research in D.C.
When Glasser visited the Ford Theater, he found himself pondering the long leap required for Booth to enter Lincoln’s box to shout, “Sic semper tyrannis,” and martyr the nation’s leader in the name of the Confederacy.
If anyone questions the relevance of re-examining such behavior, they need not search far in present-day extremist political rhetoric to find voices sounding much like Booth when they accuse current political leaders of being tyrants who take away their freedoms.
Assassins runs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge St., with previews April 11-12, performances April 13-14, 18-21 all at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors, military, faculty-staff; $5 for students, free to UNO students. Call 402.554.PLAY.