Filichia Features: ASSASSINS: The World’s Most Controversial Musical

by Peter Filichia on November 23, 2012

in Assassins,Filichia Features

“Fifty years from now, they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence.”

So says Lee Harvey Oswald's role model in ASSASSINS. And as of this week, the 49th anniversary of the assassination of President John  Fitzgerald Kennedy, the speaker is at least 98% correct. Despite a thorough investigation by the Warren Commission and close to 1,000 (yes – 1,000) books written on the Kennedy Assassination, polls routinely show that as many as 2/3rds of Americans don't feel as if they know the entire story of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.

Was the grassy knoll hiding a killer? Did the Mafia engineer the assassination? Was there a Cuban tucked away in a place where he could nevertheless do considerable harm?

One thing's for certain: the event didn't happen the way it does in ASSASSINS, the magnificent 1991 Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical. The character who makes this 50-year prediction to Lee Harvey Oswald is no less than John Wilkes Booth, who had died almost 100 years before the Kennedy Assassination.

You may infer that Weidman had Booth either time-traveling to Dallas on that fateful autumn Friday or that the actor-turned-assassin was merely a figment of Oswald's imagination. A better guess is that Weidman wanted to handle the delicate material by writing a surreal scene. Whatever the case, in ASSASSINS, Booth encourages Oswald to make his history repeat itself by making a president out of a vice-president named Johnson.

Whether or not Oswald acted alone has long been fodder for historians. However, Weidman doesn't have Booth act alone in convincing Oswald to shoot. He brings in Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Sirhan Sirhan – the so-called “successful” assassins –along with such also-rans John Hinckley, Giuseppe Zangara, Arthur Bremer, Sara Jane Moore, Sam Byck and “Squeaky” Fromme.

So should you schedule a run of ASSASSINS at your theater at this time next year to mark the 50th anniversary of – never mind what RAGTIME suggests – the real “crime of the century”?

It’s a tough question to answer because ASSASSINS is such a tough show. Allow me to take you through my own history with it.

I saw the show on February 13, 1991 during its world premiere engagement at Playwrights Horizons. When the lights came up on the set of the Texas School Book Depository and the person walking around it resembled Lee Harvey Oswald, I thought, “Good Lord, is there anything that Stephen Sondheim won’t musicalize?”

I was already unnerved. John F. Kennedy was born about seven miles from where I’d grown up – decades earlier, of course, and in, I assure you, a far nicer house. But we were both raised as Roman Catholics, and that he was the youngest-ever elected president allowed me to identify with him. That this was the first year that I was old enough to follow national elections added to his mystique. Every adult and child I knew in Massachusetts – and I mean everyone – was thrilled to have him in the White House.

On November 22, 1963, I was a senior at Arlington Catholic High School, listening to a recruiter from Merrimack College telling me and my classmates why we should enroll there. All of a sudden, Father Casey walked up to the podium, and shooed the guy away. Hmmmm, I thought, the speaker was pretty boring, but I didn’t expect that Father Casey would be that rude.

“Would you return to your classrooms,” the priest stated, rather than asked. “The president has been shot.” An hour later, we learned that he was gone.

So at that Wednesday matinee of ASSASSINS in 1991, I completely resisted the idea of 10 people convincing Oswald to shoot. The audience too sat in profound silence as the scene unfolded, for virtually all of us in attendance had been alive for the actual unforgettable incident. And when Oswald actually took the shot, I can still see in the row in front of me and a bit to left, actor Thom Sesma’s hands involuntarily leap up to cover his face from the horror. And he wasn’t the only one.

I vowed that I would never again put myself through that scene as long as I lived.

Three weeks later I was invited to the recording of ASSASSINS’ original cast album — not the entire session, for there were too many theater writers for all of us to be accommodated. The session was rationed so that each of us was scheduled to have an hour.

And wouldn’t you know that during my appointed round, the piece that the cast was recording was “November 22, 1963.” I had to experience the scene again — and again, and again; a record producer never accepts a first take. For a solid 60 minutes, I heard and watched Jace Alexander’s Lee Harvey Oswald repeatedly listen to Debra Monk’s Sara Jane Moore tell him, “We’re your family,” followed by Greg Germann’s John Hinckley adding, “I respect you,” Jonathan Hadary’s Guiteau remarking, “I envy you” and Victor Garber’s Booth demanding, “Make us proud of you.”

I stayed because I had to write a story, but I vowed that that would be the last time I’d hear “November 22, 1963.” So when I got the cast album some weeks later, I played it until I heard the soft country music that started that scene. I stopped it. From then on, I programmed the disc to play tracks 1-7. Never listening to the last track was the way I always dealt with ASSASSINS.

Four years later, I was invited to see ASSASSINS at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which would be followed by my teaching a master class on Sondheim to the students who’d performed the show. I knew that if I wanted to do a good job, I’d have to become acquainted with “November 22, 1963.”

So, for the first time, I played the CD cut – and then played it again and again. Now, years later, with the shock value eliminated, I was able to judge the scene on its own terms.

And I honestly came to the conclusion that this is one of the best-written scenes in the history of musicals. There isn’t an ounce of fat in it; every one of John Weidman’s words counts.

My guess is that the audience at your ASSASSINS production – more than 20 years after the original – will be able to appreciate the brilliance of it without the emotions I brought to it. After all, many of your theatergoers — even those pushing 50 — have no first-hand memories of the Kennedy Assassination. As a result, they'll be better equipped to judge the scene on its own brilliant terms. After all, I didn’t squirm when the musical blatantly showed the long-before-my-time assassinations of Garfield and McKinley, did I?

So I say that if you like ASSASSINS and are itching to direct it, do so. Oh, you may find theatergoers who resist it long before “November 22, 1963.” Take that Cincinnati Conservatory of Music production: as the excellent cast was singing “Another National Anthem,” in the middle of Row D four women decided that they couldn’t take these madmen up there one second longer. They got up and began to leave.

When Mickey Fisher, playing Sam Byck, saw them start to leave, he marched closer to the footlights to confront them while singing. His castmates joined him, played directly to them, increased their volume, intensified their craziness, stared them down and matched the ladies step for step until the poor souls stumbled onto the aisle, a ribbon of escape to their cars in the parking lot.

I wondered what they would have thought had they stayed to see  “November 22, 1963.”

So if you’re a director or producer whose theater has already pushed the envelope off the table and onto the floor with risky chances in programming, do consider ASSASSINS, despite the obvious risks.

Most importantly, the show also carries a theme of great importance. We live in a country in which people want financial success, yes — but people need respect just as much. If your production of ASSASSINS influences your audience to better treat so-called “unimportant” people, it will be well worth doing.

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.

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