Sondheim Hit Parade

Sondheim Hit Parade Assassins, the legendary Stephen Sondheim–John Weidman musical that got away from Broadway, makes its highly anticipated debut this month
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

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On March 31 — a little more than a week after Stephen Sondheim's 74th birthday — previews commence for his first new-to-Broadway musical since his Passion of '94. Truth to tell, Assassins predates Passion by three years. It has taken 13 years for the show to travel 13 blocks, from Off-Broadway (42nd Street's Playwrights Horizons) to Broadway (West 54th Street's Studio 54). Along the way, the score acquired a familiarity, thanks to the original cast recording, and cult cliques caught on from London and regional productions.

Why it was bypassed by Broadway in the first place is a puzzlement — and not: Like many of Sondheim's shows, Assassins — with a book by his frequent collaborator, John Weidman — is supersensitive to the times in which it is presented. It is a surreal vaudeville in which nine people who have tried to kill the President of the United States converge on a midway shooting gallery, cavort and sort out their common denominators. (For the record, there were 12 such attempts, and four — Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy — succeeded.)

Assassins first poked its head above ground January 27, 1991, and immediately drew fire. Sondheim was taken aback. "We knew the material was difficult — that we were grappling with unsettling stuff — but I did not expect — nor did John, I think — that this show would cause such divergent reactions," he admits, "but, again, I don't think it would have caused such divergent reactions had it not been for The Gulf War, which was going on at the time. I don't read reviews, but people told me we were accused of being unpatriotic. We went into rehearsals, and then, in the middle of rehearsals, The Gulf War broke out — and, nevertheless, we still had the chutzpah to present it while our boys were fighting overseas."

A decade passed, the national temperature dropped, and Roundabout announced Assassins for its 2001-2002 Broadway season — then 9/11 happened, and the show went on the back-burner. "We made our decision on 9/12," says Sondheim. "We believed that the audience wouldn't be able to hear what we had to say while they were so emotionally involved in the catastrophic event that had just taken place." Not that now is ringing with All Clear signals, but Roundabout has decided to have another go at the show. It officially reaches Broadway April 22, and Sondheim can't predict whether the show's growth in prestige over the years will make it any more receptive today. "Patriotism is in resurgence," he factors in, "so if people decide it's an anti-patriotic show, which it isn't, then that's what they decide."

At least they will decide on a finished show, not the work-in-progress that was displayed here before. The next step for Assassins — whether Broadway or Off-Broadway — would have been its official opening, but that never happened, and the show ended as a workshop, incomplete. Sondheim didn't take it up again until director Sam Mendes waved it over to London in 1992 to launch the now-famous Donmar Warehouse, which it did with considerable distinction.

A crucial, unifying song — "Something Just Broke" — was then added to the mix. "Grief is the emotion that underlies the entire show — our grief, the nation's grief. I knew I wanted to write a song that put that grief onstage — I just didn't have the time to do it in New York. The whole business of what these assassinations meant to people in the United States, how they learned about McKinley and Lincoln, how quickly they learned about Kennedy. I wanted to write a song that would encompass all four assassinated presidents and the reaction across the country but mix them so that one sentence would be about McKinley and the next about Kennedy, and I wanted to assign it to the five people in the chorus who were not assassins. I wanted to show how they heard about the President's death, in whatever period it is, always remembering where they heard about it. If you talk to people about the Kennedy assassination, the first thing that comes to them is, 'I remember I was standing by the stove' or 'I heard it on a cab radio.'"

Presidential assassinations don't trigger song-and-dance notions for most of us. Sondheim went straight there. At the time, he was on Stuart Ostrow's advisory board for the Musical Theatre Lab-Dramatist Guild workshop of new musicals. "Among the submissions," recalls Sondheim, "was this outline for a show called Assassins. I just took one look at the title, and I thought, 'Well, what a great idea' — without even knowing why I thought so.

"Many years later, when I wanted to write something with John Weidman after we'd done Pacific Overtures, we were tossing around ideas, and I said, 'Listen, once upon a time, I came across this assassins piece. I don't know if anything happened to it. Let me check into it.'"

Sondheim tracked down the Assassins author — a composer and teacher, then and now, at the University of Pennsylvania named Charles Gilbert Jr. "I asked if I could use his idea without using his material, and he graciously said yes. He came to whatever readings we had, and we listened to anything he had to say. But our piece was entirely different from his. The one thing we used from him is the image of the shooting gallery at the start. That was his invention. Everything else is John's and mine."

But Sondheim is grateful for great ideas. Assassins, says the title page, "is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr." And just look at the world that one word opened up. . . .