It’s the musical that gets scarier.
Classic Stage Company’s new revival elevates “Assassins” to the top tier of Stephen Sondheim’s many musicals. John Doyle directs the production that opened Sunday at the Off Broadway venue, where he’s retiring as its artistic longtime director. Doyle made his name in New York theater with the groundbreaking 2005 revival of “Sweeney Todd,” and his take on “Assassins” is just as revelatory.
Yes, as with Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd” and some of his other lesser directorial efforts, actor-singers play instruments on stage. Fortunately, most of the “Assassins” musicians are where they belong – in the orchestra pit, which happens to be a balcony. Doyle also designs the simple set, and the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward put the onstage musicians in prison jumpsuits that are not orange. If his “Sweeney Todd” took place in an asylum, one could interpret Doyle’s “Assassins” as being set in a jail where several presidential killers and would-be assassins have gathered to share their stories of “grievances” and “the need to belong” and “the right to be free.”
This is where the “scarier” part comes in. In previous incarnations of “Assassins,” there loomed a curtain of safety between the threatened residents of the White House and us. We didn’t have to worry for our lives, because who among us was going to be president?
When Sondheim and book writer John Weidman first presented “Assassins” in 1990, John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan had taken place only nine years earlier. In the previous decade, there had been Sara Jane Moore and Samuel Byck’s attempts to kill Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, respectively. Since the early 1980s, the Secret Service has been doing its job, apparently.
One result of this success is that domestic terrorists and would-be assassins have drastically lowered their gun sights to express grievances, a warped sense of freedom and, above all, a deep-seated need to belong at all costs. Today, it is election workers and school board members and other ordinary citizens who need to worry.
CDs make it possible for anyone to memorize the Sondheim score. Less familiar to the composer’s devotees is Weidman’s book, with its many extended conversations between the assassins. Some of these bitch sessions take place across decades. Weidman not only nails the astounding contradiction of these killers’ shared solipsism, he turns many of them into inspired, unintentional comics who, unfortunately, do take their act on the road. “Assassins” is that rare Sondheim musical where the book is equal to the score. What Sondheim and Weidman could not have imagined is how much crazier these dialogues on the fringes have gotten in the era of QAnon’s pizzagate conspiracy.
More than his prison concept, Doyle’s master stroke here is his sublime direction of the actors. “Assassins” is the ultimate ensemble musical, and there is not a more accomplished one on the New York stage, either in a musical or a play, than the ensemble seen at CSC. Whether Tavi Gevinson’s possessed Squeaky Fromme is sharing nutty stories with Judy Kuhn’s wholesome Sara Jane Moore or Adam Chanler-Berat’s tortured John Hinckley Jr., the only option you’re given to distance yourself from their tales of persecution is to laugh. Weidman’s book switches gears with would-be assassin Samuel Byck to give this kook his own space, and Andy Grotelueschen exploits that loner status with a frenzied comic brilliance that recalls the “SNL” golden age of John Belushi.
Steven Pasquale and Will Swenson are two of Broadway’s favorite leading men in musicals. In “Assassins,” they get to shuck off those Ken Doll roles to play, respectively, an elegant John Wilkes Booth and a loopy Charles Guiteau. Pasquale is as understated in his driven menace as Swenson is flamboyant in thinking that killing John Garfield will help him get a book published.
Along the way, I found myself drawn repeatedly to the easy charm of the show’s Balladeer (Ethan Slater), the seeming voice of reason or, at least, an objective narrator. Whether you’ve seen “Assassins” before or not, Slater delivers a shocking moment when his assassin identity is finally revealed.
Only with the story of Giuseppe Zangara (Wesley Taylor), who attempted to shoot Franklin Roosevelt and accidentally shot Mayor Anton Cermak instead, does the narrative drive of “Assassins” take a brief, confusing detour. Cermak’s murder and Zangara’s electrocution are told in song; perhaps more book from Weidman might help. Then again, maybe some critics need to brush up on their American history.
The most terrifying moment in “Assassins” remains “The Gun Song.” The number’s creepy ode to the beauty of this weaponry is compounded by Doyle’s putting arguably the most prop guns ever seen on one stage. They aren’t mentioned, but it’s impossible not to let your mind wander to the “Rust” movie disaster, the twin trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery killers, and other events having nothing to do with presidents. “Assassins” only gets scarier.