When Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim musical, opened off-Broadway in 1990, I was intrigued. How could it work? Would audiences really respond to a musical in which the principal characters were presidential assassins (or would-be assassins)? What would these characters have to say? How could the show not be perverse and macabre?
There were a lot of other skeptics, of course, and that iteration of the show didn’t make it to Broadway. I did purchase the cast recording, though, and I fell for it. The music—propelled by a sort of carnival theme—stayed with me. And just as importantly, I suppose, I decided that the characters had quite a bit to say. About disenchantment and loss. About social ills. About what America looks like from a very particular, skewed point of view.
When a new production 0f Assassins finally made it to Broadway in 2004, I really wanted to be there. Neil Patrick Harris (née Doogie Howser, M.D.) played Lee Harvey Oswald! But I just never got my act together, and soon Assassins was gone. I’ll be kicking myself for that for a long time…. Once again, though, I picked up the cast recording. The music still worked for me. (For what it’s worth, I prefer the recording of the 1991 Off-Broadway cast to the recording of the 2004 Broadway revival cast. On either, check out the bizarre “Ballad of Guiteau,” with its infectious refrain of “I am going to the Lordy.”)
So when the Arden Theatre, one of Philly’s best companies, announced that it was going to open its 2007-08 season with Assassins, I was psyched. And on Thursday night, two friends and I caught a performance. If you’re in Philly, I highly recommend the show. I’m sure the cast—with an exception or two—wasn’t quite Broadway-level, but I smiled, enjoyed the music, and found myself experiencing the peculiar, startling brand of Americana championed by Assassins.
Two of the actors really appealed to me. Mary Martello ably provided comic relief with her ditzy Sara Jane Moore (one of two would-be assassins of Gerald Ford). But it was Scott Greer as Sam Byck—the angry, Santa-suited would-be assassin of Richard Nixon—that I’ll best remember. In one of the best scenes in the musical, Byck tape records a message to Leonard Bernstein, telling the musical giant that what the world really needs is more love songs. Greer’s Byck is just a regular fella, sort of(!), but one who is profoundly and palpably both angry and vulnerable. What the world really needs is more actors like Scott Greer.
Assassins is edgy and wonderful, and I’m glad I—finally—had a chance to experience it.