(in which starlady's post reminds me to finish and post this)
I've seen Assassins once before: it was my freshman year and the first theatrical production I would see in college. It was also my first exposure to Sondheim outside of West Side Story; I had no idea who he was or that I would later find many extremely passionate Sondheim fans in fandom.
I remember coming out of the theater absolutely stunned; I had seen some commentary in musicals before, but nothing quite like this, definitely nothing this dark and this biting.
Since then, I've become a fan of several of his shows, though I'm not hardcore enough to have listened to them all, and I've been lucky enough to see a few staged (mostly by local troupes or college productions, though I really should write up the revival of A Little Night Music I saw in NY in 2010). Assassins is still one of my favorites, in large part due to coffeeandink's write up of the 2004 revival, which prompted me to buy the cast album. I prefer the revival to the original, in part due to familiarity, in part due to recording additions that make it more satisfying to listen to as an album, and largely due to one major change the revival made.
This staging uses the revival changes, with the additional change of no extra cast outside of the assassins, the Balladeer, and the Proprieter. So the assassins who aren't the main character in a scene play bystanders and witnesses, which is a nice way of visually conveying the ordinariness of the assassins. The staging is a carnival setting, although I really wish there had been the light-up prize when a president is assassinated, along with the "DING DING DING DING DING" of the bell in the recordings. It was a bit like watching a production of Sweeney Todd without that ear-piercing whistle.
The Balladeer was an excellent singer and sounded a lot like Neil Patrick Harris, but unfortunately, his mike wasn't working very well the night CB and I went to see it. Also, he plays the banjo himself, which would be nice except for the whole overpowering of the voice. And given his role as a key narrator to several of the assassinations and as the viewpoint most set against the assassins, it felt like a big loss. Similarly, while I liked the Proprieter's scary stage presence, he could not sing, and as such, he only lurks in the background for most of the production, instead of taking a more active role. He does give all the assassins their guns in the first number, but outside of that, he's not a very large figure in the musical.
I particularly liked the person playing Sara Jane, who had an incredible voice that she got to show off when playing bystanders in "How I Saved Roosevelt" and "Something Just Broke." And I thought John Wilkes Booth was good, genteel and creepy and angry. Though I wish he had done the "n*****-lover" line in his ballad angrier or louder or with more emphasis; I always always always cringe in anticipation of that, especially how it contrasts with the rest of Booth's righteousness, and it felt like the production pulled its punch a little.
I think the person playing Giuseppe Zangara was POC, which was a nice twist on Zangara's lines about being American, not some foreign left-winger.
I forgot how hilarious Sara Jane + Squeaky Fromme interactions are.
I also really liked the old-fashioned Broadway choreography, especially in "Another National Anthem." In my head, it matches perfectly with the funhouse-mirror-carnival and the surrealness of the show, and the creepiness in watching Guiteau dancing to his execution was very effective. Also, I tend to ignore Sam Byck in the album because he monologues rather than sings, but this Sam Byck was very good. (This was also helpful for "Another National Anthem," since the Proprieter isn't really in it and Byck does a lot of the singing.) On a minor note, I really wish they had kept Czolgosz working his way to the head of the line in the choreography. (He's in line at the end, but then the line kind of dances, and then everyone just makes a 180 turn so Czolgosz is suddenly at the front of the line.)
Mostly I wish a lot of the audio quality of the production had been better, from the Balladeer's mike to the recording of "Something Just Broke." They begin by playing a recording of the cast singing, but it's not a particularly good recording, which is too bad because as previously mentioned, the person playing Sara Jane was excellent. It works a bit in the beginning when it's supposed to sound like scratchy radio, but the recording plays for long after that, and the assassins-as-crowd lined up by the audience don't begin to sing live until the last verse or so. And alas, the band got incredibly out of tune and off-tempo during some points, so much so that I couldn't quite tell what they were supposed to be playing.
Spoilers for revival staging (and Buffy)
It really was a pity that the Balladeer's mike wasn't working that well, especially for "Another National Anthem," because then the assassins overpowering him and transforming him into Lee Harvey Oswald isn't nearly as frightening. I loved him as Lee but wish there had been more of a contrast to him as Balladeer. Also, something about all the assassins' feelings of entitlement and anger and wanting to belong reminded me a lot of the Trio in Buffy. The wanting to belong and not caring what it is you belong to is much like Andrew and Jonathan, and the anger and the entitlement and reacting to inequity and inequality by wanting to climb up the ladder and kick other people down is Warren to a tee.
And they are all entitled and wrong, and even Czolgasz loses my sympathy when he decides that the answer is to assassinate McKinley, but in comparison to all the shenanigans going on with Mitt Romney's 47% and the Wall Street meltdown and Enron and etc., these are mostly still the have-nots not knowing how to get to being one of the 1%. And that combination, I think, is what makes this musical, that blend of sometimes on-the-point critique and the myopic self-centered vision.
I remember coffeeandink saying in her review that it doesn't feel like a post-9/11 musical to her because of how 9/11 has in some ways superceded the JFK assassination in USian history, and for me, it's particularly odd watching this near the end of Obama's first term. (Also, when Sam Byck is talking about how Democrats and Republicans all say the other side is lying, how can you tell who to believe, I heroically restrained myself from yelling out, "MITT ROMNEY LIES!!!!!") I have never quite understood the mythos of the Kennedy Camelot or the Kennedys in general; I wasn't alive for any of that. I also never quite understood personally connecting with a president to that extent until Obama was elected: I don't agree with some of his politics, and he is much more moderate than me, but something about Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House with Malia and Sasha, seeing his multiracial extended family up there... I am always terrified he will be assassinated, and it's odd watching the fictional replaying of the JFK assassination in this light.
I don't know how the musical would work if something like that happened (and please, universe, don't let it!); I can watch it post-9/11 because for me, "Something Just Broke" is more about 9/11 than JFK. As previously noted, the JFK mythos just doesn't work that well for me, and I wonder how well it displaces as other things in USian history accrue.
In conclusion: still one of my favorite Sondheim albums and one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, though I can see how some people might think of the pacing of the show and its composition as a series of individual narratives before Lee Harvey Oswald as a flaw.
Also, I am disproportionately amused by listening to "We're the other national anthem, folks, the ones who can't get in to the ballpark" in a production happening at the same time the Giants were playing a World Series game.
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