C'mere and Kill a President.

So I got that horrible cold that's been going around. Several of us have had it now. So my apologies to the 3 1/2 people who read my blog for falling down on the job... I think I'm feeling better now though that might just be the Sudafed, Loratadine, Mucinex, and Dayquil... not sure... wait, what was I talking about...?
We started rehearsals last week and we learned the whole score in three rehearsals. We usually take more time than that, but there aren't as many songs in this show as there are in most other musicals. And though some of the songs are pretty weird, pretty hard Sondheimy stuff, this is a kick-ass cast and they're handling it all quite ably.

Last night, we had a "Table Talk" night. For those who don't know, that's a night when all we do is sit around and talk about the show, its themes, its style and construction, the historical context, all that stuff. We don't do this for every show; sometimes that work is done over time, as we rehearse and stage the show. But when a show has a really specific historical context, it really can be very valuable to take the time for this. And in this case, not only does Assassins have extensive historical content, but it's also quite remarkable how accurately it handles those factual details.

For instance, the show includes a scene in which Charles Guiteau tries -- unsuccessfully -- to score with Sara Jane Moore. It's a very funny scene, but it also reveals some concrete historical facts that contribute to both characters. The real Sara Jane had five husbands (two of them at the same time) and was always trying to hook another one. And Guiteau was a notorious flirt throughout his life, coming on to women constantly, always being shot down, and yet never getting discouraged. This scene, which may seem to some like a throwaway scene, really does reveal interesting character-based truth about both of them.

So last night I started by talking for a while about the material, about how it works, how we'll approach it, and why it remains so scarily relevant. I told the cast that I decided we should repeat this show -- the only show we've ever produced three times, the last time in 1998 -- the day the Virginia Tech shootings happened. I sat there watching MSNBC, thinking the same thing I always think when these things happen: When will someone step up and speak the unspeakable, that guns are inherently bad, that their sole and explicit purpose is to kill, that the countries with the fewest guns also have the fewest violent deaths? And then I called Alison (a New Line board member and also now playing Emma Goldman) and said, "I think it's time we do Assassins again." She agreed and that was that.

I've said many times, and I really believe this, that every high school in America should be required to produce Assassins at least once every four years. This is a very smart, very insightful piece of theatre about what's wrong with America -- too many guns, too much anger, a bullshit American Dream continually promised but never delivered upon, and a culture crazy in love with violence. This is a country built on guns, won with guns, and now killing its own children with guns. Every time young people go on a shooting rampage (Virginia Tech, Omaha, Colorado, etc.), we shake our heads in amazement and wonder "How could this have happened?" Maybe if schools were required to stage Assassins and to engage the kids in a discussion of the issues in the show we wouldn't be so clueless. And maybe a frank, open discussion about violence and anger in America would diffuse some of the rage that, left unchecked, eventually explodes in death and tragedy.

There. I said it. That's my soapbox for the night.

After I spoke, we went around and each actor playing an assassin talked about his or her character, biographical details, etc. We were amazed at the dozens of parallels among the assassins. With each assassin we found similarities to several of the others, some minor, some huge. Booth, Czolgosz, and Byck all had legitimate political beefs. Both Guiteau and Byck were serial failures throughout their lives. Both Hinckely and Fromme were investigated by the FBI and deemed "not a threat." Both Byck and Hinckley wrote scary letters to celebrities. Both Czolgosz and Zangara were victims of class injustice. Both Moore and Byck tried to get stopped by police on their way to their assassination attempts. The list goes on and on.

Most notably, most of the assassins (Booth being a major exception) led very sad, very lonely lives that left them feeling left out of the American Dream, disenfranchised, ignored, betrayed by their country. (Contrary to the Balladeer's claims, Booth was at the pinnacle of his career, universally praised as America's greatest actor, and making $20,000-30,000 a year -- in 1865!)

It occurred to me while I listened that, had these folks lived today, many of them could have had the voice they never had in real life -- through blogs and many other newly democratized outlets. Booth, Czolgosz, Byck and others had passionate political views, and perhaps had they had a soapbox of sorts, they would've felt less disenfranchised, less hopeless. It's impossible to really know something like this, but I couldn't help wondering...

All in all, it was a fascinating rehearsal, and I was happy to hear afterward that everyone felt it had been a valuable exercise. I think stuff like this makes our shows so much richer and more truthful. The audience won't know all we know about these people, but now these characters are so much realer to all of us and I think it gives us a deeper commitment to playing them as honestly as we can. Almost like we owe them that.

As I said to the actors, the most brilliant thing about Assassins (which the 2004 Broadway revival did not understand) is that the show never judges these people. It allows them to speak in their own voices, tell their own stories, and make their own cases. This makes it a difficult show to watch sometimes, more disturbing, more complicated, but also far more satisfying.

Like they say, if we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it. Somebody say Amen.
Long Live the Musical!
Scott

2 comments:

smoore | January 24, 2008 at 11:32 AM

come now, that's not NEARLY a strong enough cocktail of medicines. where's the fun stuff?

were any of your other decisions to do assassins again spurred by an event like this one was?

smoore

Scott Miller | January 24, 2008 at 11:46 AM

What an interesting question -- I don't think so. I think the first time it was merely my Sondheim obsession (which has waned a bit now, in favor of newer work). The second time, it was because we wanted to try it in-the-round, which turned out to be a blast!