Bang! Bang! I Changed the World

By Geary Danihy

Assassination.

Not exactly the subject matter you might choose for the basis of a musical. Then again, would you leap at the opportunity to write a musical about a barber who slits men’s throats and a lady who uses the “meat” to bake and sell pies? Probably not, but you’re not Stephen Sondheim, who has not, over his illustrious career, eschewed outre subject matter. Thus, with the assistance of John Weidman, who wrote the book, Sondheim penned “Assassins,” which opened on Broadway in 2004 and garnered fine Tony Awards. This analysis of nine assassins (both unsuccessful and successful), now on the boards at Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of James Bundy, is something of a tight-wire act, for it deals with heinous crimes and aberrant personalities while seeking to entertain. That it by and large does is much to the credit of its creators.

The premise and frame for the show is a carnival shooting gallery whose Proprietor (Austine Durant) sells the opportunity to take a pot shot or two at a president. His spiel entices a handful to grab a gun and give it a whirl: Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Samuel Byck (Richard R. Henry), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina), Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and, finally, Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick, who doubles as the Balladeer).

As Weidman and Sondheim would have it, it is Booth who is the father of them all, and his first appearance engenders obeisance from the collected assassins, as if he is a demigod. In an extended second scene, Booth, with the assistance of the Balladeer, gives vent to his rage and attempts to justify his killing of President Lincoln. This will, by and large, be the format that is followed throughout the show, with each gun wielder offering “reasons” for his or her rage or dementia. However, this is definitely not a one-note show, and, since it has to entertain, several of the assassins’ quirks are utilized for comic relief.

There’s Guiteau, an erstwhile author who wanted to be the US ambassador to France and made his bid by shooting James Garfield (not the most effective job interview technique). As created by Sondheim and Weidman, Guiteau is something of a loony gadfly, which DeRosa works to a fair-the-well, especially during the execution scene, “The Ballad of Guiteau,” when he dances up and down the gallows stairs. Then there are the two female assassins, Fromme and Moore. Molina and Murney have several scenes together, and the chemistry between the drug-addled young woman besotted by Charles Manson and the somewhat ditzy suburban housewife who can’t shoot straight is delightfully humorous, with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken playing a central role in two of these encounters. One of the funniest moments is when the klutzy Moore drops her bullets and President Gerald Ford (Fred Inkley), after tripping and falling, helps her pick them up.

The weirdest and most engaging of the weirdos is Byck. Dressed in a shabby Santa Claus outfit, Henry delivers two working-man diatribes that are classic monologues, the first directed at Leonard Bernstein and the second at President Nixon, whom he plans to assassinate by crashing a plane into the White House (he never gets the hijacked plane off the runway). Drinking a Budweiser and chomping on a sandwich, or driving a car to the airport, Byck has his trusty cassette recorder dangling from his neck so he can vent his frustrations.

If there is one drawback to the musical it is the extended monologues given to Booth, both at the beginning of the show and at its conclusion. Although the former might be justified, the latter just seems to go on and on as Booth, with the other assassins present, attempts to cajole and motivate an unwilling Oswald into assassinating President Kennedy. Since so much is known (and, alas, still unknown) about that fateful day in Dallas, this exercise in “What if?” just doesn’t work. The premise is that this assassination, which struck at the bedrock of the nation as no other assassination had (save perhaps for Lincoln’s) will in some way justify, or at least make memorable, all previous efforts, at least in the minds of the assassins.

At the end of this sequence the Zapruder film of the actual assassination is screened behind the actors, and when it is you can feel the mood of the audience shift, for the “concept” of the show is suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of Oswald’s actions and somehow puts the lie to the comic antics of Guiteau, Byck, Fromme and Moore and makes the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” (the self-serving anthem of the assassins) somewhat off-putting.

There’s no denying that the Rep’s production of “Assassins” is both stylish and engaging, and the cast is, across the board, superb, with Molina, Murney, DeRosa and Henry especially delivering some memorable moments. It’s just that you walk out and perhaps wonder, should I really have enjoyed this show as much as I did?

The image of Jackie Kennedy crawling across the trunk of the open car, reaching out to the Secret Service agent, cannot help but linger and put a different spin on what you have seen. These people, out of perverted rage and self-serving delusions, wanted to kill, and often succeeded. As they all raise their guns on high in the show’s finale, you can’t help but re-evaluate one of the show’s numbers, “The Gun Song.” Yes, all it takes is to tense the trigger finger and all of your problems will be solved. How sad and dispiriting, on reflection, that so many trigger fingers have been tensed, and that the triggers are so readily available.

“Assassins” runs through April 8. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

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