Ironically, the two-year delay of the Roundabout's revival of Assassins might have been the best thing for the show. Fractured though political thought has always been, the recent political dilemmas and scandals have created deep schisms in the American psyche, with violently passionate emotions on each side. As a nation, we have grown up painfully quickly over the last two years, and the righteous indignation that greeted the show's premiere during the Gulf War now seems like a warm and fuzzy memory.
And it's an election year, to boot.
And what a masterpiece it is. The script takes a hard look at the American style of assassinations– killing political leaders not to further a competitive party, but as personal vendettas, retribution for misery. The opening song ("Everybody's Got The Right to be Happy") perfectly sets up the warped mindset of the killers: the Declaration of Independence says that Americans are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (italics mine), which many people misinterpret as the right to be happy. To a twisted mind, any unhappiness must therefore mean a flaw in the government, and the leader of that government must be to blame. It's a daring angle to take, but frighteningly effective. By seeing the country and its flaws through the eyes of the assassins, we begin to see them not merely as madmen, but as people who have been rudely awakened from the American Dream. No excuses are offered for their actions, only explanations, which we can take or leave. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and the neither the creative team nor the actors tries to sugar-coat the horror that these killers caused.
Assassins also gives us the chance to see to masters of musical theatre in their finest form, not only as writers, but as collaborators. Indeed, at times, one can easily forget that the book and the score came from two different writers. Sondheim's music is in peak form, ranging from country twang to pop to variations on political tunes. The lyrics are equally brilliant, giving each character a unique voice (and often using direct quotes from the historical figure). Weidman's book compliments the songs perfectly, alternating true moments from history with fantasy sequences in which assassins separated by centuries meet and argue. Joe Mantello directs these scenes with a uniform mix of humor and gravity, easing us into the surreal world of the show, and of the assassins themselves. This world is aptly represented by Robert Brill's skeletal set of scaffolding that serves as a metaphorical shooting gallery, and cells from which the assassins can watch their fellow killers once their own stories are over.
There are numerous changes from the 1991 Playwright's Horizons production, most notably the expansion of the Proprietor's role in the show, and the inclusion of "Something Just Broke," a song that was added for the British premiere. As played by the always debonair Marc Kudisch, the Proprietor no longer merely hands the assassins their weapons at the show's start: he remains throughout and guides them through each murder. He plays the little devil on the assassins' shoulders to the Balladeer's (Neil Patrick Harris) Everyman of an angel... which would be a wonderful device if Sondheim and Weidman hadn't already written that part for John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris). Having both Booth and the Proprietor against the Balladeer becomes overkill, pun intended. Pared down slightly and made more sly and manipulative than downright evil, the role might be smaller, but it would be much stronger. "Something Just Broke" is equally out of place at the end of the show, and the truly lovely song does not get the moment it deserves. Rather than being a heartbreaking rumination on the country's reaction to an assassination, the song is an anticlimax after the emotionally shattering scene that precedes it. Such a beautiful song should have a stronger placement.
Like the writing team, the cast demonstrates how to work as part of a group and shine individually at the same time. The individual performances range from very good to excellent, with the (tragically) notable exceptions of Jeffrey Kuhn and Denis O'Hare (as Giuseppe Zangara and Charles Guiteau, respectively), both of whom overplay their roles in their individual scenes. (To be fair, their work in the ensemble scenes is flawless; it is only when all attention is on them that they go over-the-top.) Michael Cerveris is almost unrecognizable as John Wilkes Booth, giving a much less gentlemanly performance than Victor Garber did in 1991. His rage and roughness are never far beneath the calm demeanor he tries to affect, and violence seems to drip from his teeth when he speaks. Comedian Mario Cantone proves what a versatile actor he truly is with his performance as Sam Byck, as funny a clown as Pagliacci and just as menacing. James Barbour's Leon Czolgosz is awkward and angry, but his attempts at tenderness are truly touching, and make his violence much more frightening. As the female would-be assassins Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Frome (both of whom tried to kill President Gerald Ford), Becky Ann Baker and Mary Catherine Garrison handle the dark comedy of their scenes beautifully, but do not sing as strongly as the rest of the cast. Alexander Gemignani is appropriately mousy as John Hinckley, and his escape into the fantasy of "Unworthy of Your Love" is no daydream, but a long-delayed explosion of passion. While his talents are not put to their best use as the menacing Proprietor, Marc Kudisch sings wonderfully as ever, and his Ronald Regan imitation is not to be missed. And Neil Patrick Harris gives a wonderful performance as the Balladeer, our ironic guide through the political minefield of history. The Balladeer, in this production, is the symbol of American innocence, and as such, Mr. Harris always seems just a little lost. It's a very nice touch.
Assassins is an emotionally devastating theatrical experience, forcing us to look upon the monsters of our history books and see them as human beings. By the show's end, we have journeyed with these characters and watched them commit (or try to commit) terrible crimes, but also heard of their own "muffled dreams," and their own quests for happiness. That might be the scariest aspect of the show: while most people would certainly not go to the extremes the assassins do, we all have muffled dreams. We all, ultimately, want to be happy. Looking at these people who resorted to murder to solve their personal problems, perhaps we might see a little bit of ourselves looking back.