“Assassins” director Randy Bolton started singing the first lines of the musical in the Masquer Theatre last week:
“Everybody’s got the right to be happy/Everybody’s got the right to dream …”
Quite the opening line for a musical that profiles, as its protagonists, every presidential assassin (and would-be assassin) in American history, from John Wilkes Booth, who killed President Abraham Lincoln, to John Hinckley, who shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan.
“Assassins” premiered off-Broadway in the 1990s, before a 2014 Broadway revival garnered five Tony Awards and some bit of attention, given its subject matter. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music.
It is now the final production for UM Theater’s 2018-19 season.
“The first criteria for anything we do is, 'Can we sell it?' ” Bolton said. “We had a pretty sneaking suspicion that in this day and age we could sell it.”
The play takes a “humane look” at these assassins and what made them do it, Bolton said.
There are nine roles, including Booth, Charles Guiteau (convicted of assassinating President James A. Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (President William McKinley) and Lee Harvey Oswald (President John F. Kennedy) — and those just the assassins who were able to pull it off.
All nine bend time and space to meet at a carnival-style shooting gallery, where they trade stories and motivations and work together to convince Lee Harvey Oswald that he should carry his plan through.
“(The students) are finding wonderful challenge in the characters,” Bolton said. “We’re not casting them as bad guys; you’ll get to see how bad they are … but you’ll get to see their humanity and what drove them to do it.”
In contrast, the music is uplifting and fun, Bolton said, which makes for some black humor, like when Guiteau sings an upbeat spiritual on his way to the gallows.
“Assassins” uses a series of projectors as a multi-media backdrop and counterpoint to the play, both setting scene and adding lines from characters not on stage.
A professor and graduate student from the School of Media Arts put together the projections, which are timed perfectly with the play. The projections vary from landscape images to crosscuts of weapons during “The Gun Song.”
The projections are set up behind the large, circular stage with steps and a ramp swooping up around the side. It was made for movement, Bolton said.
Although the choreography is fairly simple, it’s all well-timed, with much moving around.
There’s also choreography to learn handling the weapons, as each assassin used a gun in their attempt.
“We even have a fight director, who literally supervises and oversees they’re handling the guns properly,” Bolton said. “Although they’re not actually firing — that’s all electronic.”
There’s just one live shot at the beginning of the play, he said. The gunplay, along with the mature topic, mark this play for older audiences only — or as the poster says, “audience discretion advised."
In Bolton’s mind, the themes of gun violence and radical politics are more relevant today than they were when the play premiered.
“People talk about, ‘When is someone going to get this nut?’” he said. “They’re doing it so they can come into existence and have some real notoriety.”