The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Assassins,” which runs through Oct. 7, is a must-see.
“Assassins” is a musical exploration of the men and women who have killed or tried to kill American presidents over the years – from John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln) and Charles Guiteau (Garfield) through Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy) and John Hinckley (Reagan).
Staged in a startlingly inventive carnival setting, the play gives each assassin a few scenes and a song to express their backgrounds or motivations. A garish scoreboard marks whether the president targeted was a “hit” or a “miss.”
The play jumps around chronologically but begins with the story of the vengeful and egomaniacal Booth who, in killing Lincoln, created a sort of template for future assassins. It ends dramatically with the assassination of Kennedy. In a gut-wrenching scene, a kind of countdown to catastrophe, Booth slowly eggs on Oswald as he sits in the Book Depository building in the minutes before the president’s motorcade passes.
The musical score is bookended with the anthem “Everybody’s Got the Right,” with its ironic refrain: “Everybody’s got the right to be happy. Everybody’s got the right to their dream.” While not meant as an endorsement of murder, it expresses the distorted connection between violence and American values.
Along the way, each assassin or would-be assassin sings a ballad about his particular beef. John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme (who tried to kill Gerald Ford) sing the eerie “Unworthy of Your Love” about the objects of their obsessions, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. JFK’s murder (rerun via the horrific Zapruder film) is followed by a haunting lament for ourselves and our country, a song titled “Something Just Broke.”
There is a disturbing amount of loud gunfire and guns pointed at the audience throughout the play. Without any preaching about it, the ubiquity of guns and their devastation to our body politic is made obvious.
At the “talkback” with cast members after the performance I attended, we got into an interesting discussion about the roles that hatred, mental illness and ideology play in motivating assassins.
Despite the dark subject matter, there are some laugh-out-loud scenes. Samuel Byck’s escalating fit of screaming rage against Richard Nixon is hilarious before it becomes really scary. Another scene between Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, showing what bizarre and delusional outsiders they were – incomprehensible even to each other – is a tour de force of comic timing.
As is often said of the work of Stephen Sondheim, this is not your parents’ Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sondheim doesn’t always write catchy, happy tunes you hum while leaving the theater. In the past 50 years he’s taken American musical theater to a whole new level with works that are complicated and challenging both musically and thematically.
I have seen many excellent Milwaukee Rep productions but “Assassins” has to be one of the best. There is not one weak link in the tremendous and large ensemble cast. And the technical aspects – scenic, sound and lighting design – which entail rotating scaffolds and dozens of tricky sound and lighting cues, are carried off brilliantly. It is a production that engages your mind and all of your senses.