KPBS AIRDATE: November 18, 1992
Anyone who knows anything about music or theater has a strong opinion of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize-winner has been hailed as the most important, creative, innovative composer-lyricist of his generation — and damned as the most dark, cerebral and inaccessible musical theater artist of his or any day.
One thing everyone can agree on: he certainly has chutzpah: Who else would write an operatic, Grand Guignol Broadway musical about a cannibalistic barber, “Sweeney Todd”? Well, now Sondheim has done himself one better — or worse, depending on the strength of your stomach. Two years ago, the master of the macabre penned music and lyrics for the definitive showpiece on presidential assassins. It offended nearly everyone in New York , and had a shockingly short run.
Now “Assassins” is here for a West coast premiere at SDSU. That’s a coup for the Drama Department, and a stretch for the San Diego theatergoing audience. Despite the critical and popular opinion of “Assassins,” I was intrigued. Until it started, that is.
This play didn’t work off-Broadway because it just doesn’t work. It manages to be both nationalistically offensive and incredibly puerile. The little vignettes, featuring seven men and two women who have attempted to kill presidents — in several cases, without success — are repetitive and even silly. John Weidman’s book shoots for humor, but it’s of the basest kind. And the music isn’t memorable; more Sondheim atonal tunes.
We really don’t learn much about these fanatics, especially the ones we didn’t know that much about to begin with; we can barely distinguish McKinley’s Polish assassin from FDR’s Italian assassin-wannabe. Gerald Ford’s wish-killers — ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sara Jane Moore — are portrayed as squealing idiots. Hinckley is morose; Oswald is reluctant. Only Charles Guiteau, Garfield ‘s assassin, and Lincoln ‘s John Wilkes Booth, have been given anything resembling a character. And the only plot line, an improbable but intriguing attempt at the ultimate Kennedy conspiracy theory, doesn’t show up till the last ten of the play’s 100 intermissionless minutes.
By and large, it’s not the production. Director Paula Kalustian and her competent cast of 17 do their best. Not all the singing voices are strong. But Todd Dubail as Booth and Sean Bernardi as a jingoistic Balladeer stand out vocally. Josh Escajeda is engaging as Samuel Byck, a sicko who had it in for Nixon, but the role is ridiculously written.
The weaving of time periods and the meeting of warped minds is certainly not without appeal. The underbelly of the American Dream, the distorted reality that fuels frenzied acts in the name of a cause or the quest for attention can make for stirring conversation and contemplation. But it doesn’t necessarily create exciting theater or, less likely, a winning musical.
“Everybody’s Got the Right,” as the opening and closing song goes. It’s a free country. And that allows for assassins as well as misguided theatrical ventures. But some compassionate soul should pull the trigger on this one.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.