Stage Set For Presidential “Assassins”

When you create a show about presidential assassins, “attention must be paid.”

It’s no accident that this famous phrase from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is spoken in Assassins, playing at the Yale Repertory Theater from Mar. 17 to Apr. 8. Nothing is an accident in John Weidman’s (book) and Stephen Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) scorching indictment of the dark side of the American Dream. The entire show is worked out in intricate, devastating, and surprisingly entertaining detail.

Assassins tells the stories of nine of our country’s 13 presidential assassins (or would-be assassins) before they were assassins. By the time John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald wind up together in the Texas School Book Depository in the climax of the show, we’ve already heard the tirades of a parade of presidential killers who felt they were shut out of the successes they believed they had been promised. Weidman and Sondheim are a sly team. Booth uses ”attention must be paid” to motivate Oswald to pull the trigger on that fateful November 1963 day by shaming him into wanting to leave his mark on history. The allusion, though, makes the moment even richer: In Death, Linda Loman speaks the words in part as an indictment of capitalism, the can’t-quite-make-ends-meet world that has withered her husband’s soul. It’s not that different than the kind of experience that caused people like Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, and John Hinckley to plot to kill a president.

Don’t get the idea that the show is a big downer. The deeply surreal Assassins is commonly staged as a carnivalesque cabaret, with Weidman’s script taking you from horror to hilarity in the time it takes to shift the spotlight, taking full advantage as well of Sondheim’s gift for funny. Scenes at the FDR assassination attempt, an encounter between Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, and Sam Byck’s monologue to Leonard Bernstein are gut-busters. The creative team is savvy enough to know that if you tackle a show about the violent underbelly of American culture, you better damn well season it with a heavy dose of comedy, joy and, most of all, surprise.

Weidman wanted to present historical characters as people of dreams, desires, and complexity, and understood that once they pulled the trigger they lost their own identity, becoming historically identified only with their horrific deeds. So we get to know them one by one. Guiteau kills Garfield because he imagines he has been promised an ambassadorship to France; Zangara attempts to shoot FDR as an antidote to unending stomach pain. Czolgosz was a brooding anarchist who killed William McKinley. Squeaky Fromme, a member of Charles Manson’s “Family,” tried to kill Gerald Ford to bring attention to Manson. They are the disaffected; one might even say “deplorables.”

For the score, Sondheim famously mined American vernacular, starting with a “Hail to the Chief,” which with great affect he occasionally slows to a near dirge. He riffs on John Philip Sousa and Stephen Foster, and includes a 1970s singer-songwriter-styled love ballad that switches verses from Fromme singing about Manson to John Hinckley (Ronald Reagan’s assaulter) singing to Jodie Foster.

Assassins was an audacious choice for Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy’s 2016-2017 Yale Rep schedule. He programmed the season last spring, in the still relatively early stages of the presidential primary, knowing that no matter the outcome of the election, the show would still be relevant. The following is an edited version of a conversation with Bundy, who is directing the show himself.

Assassins most directly is about the disenfranchised and the people who feel they have been left out of the American dream, but it delves into so many different areas, and raises many questions that aren’t answered. When you think of Assassins what do you want people to take away from it?

I think you put your finger right on it: that it is a piece that raises questions. The title of the piece is Assassins but it’s not purely about assassins. It’s about assassins and people who attempted assassination. In a way, the play is about what is it in people that makes them turn to political violence. I think, more broadly, what is it in our American character, what is the struggle within the character of Americans (particularly in this case white Americans) that combines this sort of fierce optimism and sense of entitlement and aggrieved rage? When I programmed the play — the review — we were in the middle of the primary season and it was clear that no matter who won the election we would be experiencing a kind of political backlash. If Hillary Clinton had won the election there would likely have been violence, and it would be coming largely from people who felt forgotten and marginalized in the sort of white middle and working class. Or, if she lost, we were going to be governed by somebody who had ridden to power on that same wave of resentment, and that backlash would become the governing principle of the nation. So from a programming perspective it was a win-win. The fact that the piece was going to work no matter who won the election suggests to me that Weidman and Sondheim have brilliantly excavated the history and the strains of idealism and free market capitalism and sexism and entitlement and gun culture, which, quite frankly, undermine our culture and our polity.

How do these concepts inform your direction?

Directing is really interesting because the creators are wonderfully articulate about the fact that Assassins isn’t a musical. They refer to it as a review or a collage, and they’ll point out that it has documentary elements, and fantastic elements, and it’s essentially a surreal work that is surreal because characters who lived in different time periods are having conversations with each other. And fittingly for a piece that is largely about the American dream, it sort of has the structure of a dream and the strangeness of a dream. In a way it’s almost like the American nightmare put on stage. These events, particularly the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, were searing national experiences. What the theater can do that a straight documentary can’t do is it can delve into this, and find other ways of exploring the psyche than by just explaining it. Miraculously, through the music, it can entertain the proposition that even people who have done the evil that has been done in these extraordinary acts of political violence have a human soul.

When you compare music from the original off-Broadway production, it has more edge than the revival, which felt like they softened some of the corners. A production I saw at the Yale Cabaret, in my memory, had a little punkiness to it, more in your face. When I ask about your directorial choices, are you presenting it as an edgy, risky, vibrant piece, or something more true to the review? Or is it something else?

We’re not trying to do a museum piece production. We’re trying to respond to impulses that we have as contemporary citizens and connections that we think the work makes to what is going on right now.  As you remember, it has the same first number and last number, and we’ve tried to attend in this production to what that might mean. How are the first number and the last number actually different from each other? Where are you meant to be that is different from where you started? Is it meant to be circular or is it not meant to be circular? That’s a question that the production has to answer, and that every production has to answer. The set design has a highly contemporary feeling, which also echoes the domestic arts and industrial arts of the 19th century as well as of contemporary culture. At the same time, the writers give you a leg up because the play is surreal, and everything can land within its own period as being true to its own period. Weidman and Sondheim treat a really, really serious subject with a lot of comedy and song, so if as an audience member you don’t feel some jarring edginess the play isn’t working. The piece consistently asks you both to entertain the situation as comedic, and also tragic. If you ever get comfortable in a production of Assassins it has failed. It is an exhilarating experience to see this work, but it is also profoundly disturbing.

The characters themselves seem like they could be stand-ins for Trump supporters. You alluded to it earlier. The sexism, the disenfranchisement. When you look at it today it would seem that Trump speaks to them.

You could argue that. If you were to parse the nation demographically, you would probably find that the same attitudes exist in other demographics than Trump supporters as well. But I think your observation is indisputably accurate.

Is there a moment in this show, since you began working on it, that came to you in a new and different way?

The last 25 minutes of the show I found really a profound experience to work on. So much of the language of “Another National Anthem,” because the argument that’s going on in that song feels like it was happening all last summer, and it’s still happening now in our political discourse. Weidman was a teenager when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the depth of the meaning of that event to him and to the nation is embedded in the scope of the last 15 minutes of the play. My earliest memory is of watching JFK’s funeral, and my father met the airplane at the airport when they flew back from Dallas, but my experience was no deeper than anyone else’s experience. [Bundy’s father, McGeorge Bundy, served in the Kennedy administration.] It’s now the case that most people who are alive in our nation were not alive at that time, so it feels like a sort of special privilege and responsibility to look at how our history has impacted us, and also the extent to which our history has changed us. But there are enduring characteristics of our national character that are still a threat to our wellbeing.

The show also points out the tension between optimism and despair.

There’s an inherent optimism in the show. Although in a universe in which the optimism of The Balladeer is converted to the nihilism of Lee Harvey Oswald, I’m not sure that optimism wins out within the scope of the artistic work itself. This would be interpretive, but in a universe in which The Balladeer sings optimistically about how America heals, then turns into Lee Harvey Oswald, what do you think that says about the American character?

The Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Assassins runs at the University Theater, 222 York St., from Mar. 17 to Apr. 8. Click here for tickets and more information.

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