BWW Interviews: Music Box Musical's Cast Talks ASSASSINS, Masquerade Theatre & Cultural Significance of US Tragedies
When Masquerade Theatre closed earlier this year, many Houstonians felt pangs of anguish and hoped for an angel of theatre to bestow upon the organization a grant that would allow them to remain open. Masquerade, as far as we know, is not reopening; however, many of their former cast members have been assembled for Music Box Musicals' inaugural performance of their inaugural season-Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Tony Award Winning ASSASSINS. As rehearsals were starting to pick up, Founding Artistic Director and Director of the show, Michael Ross invited me to sit down with the cast. We discussed reuniting with the Masquerade family, the show, and its cultural significance in light of tragedies such as September 11th and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
This cast is almost a complete family reunion for the Masquerade Theatre resident company. What is it like performing together again?
FULL CAST: We don't know yet! (Everyone laughs.)
REBEKAH DAHL: We hope it's going to be awesome! (Everyone laughs.)
Michael Ross: I think that it's going to be easy in a lot of ways. A lot of times when you assemble a cast that hasn't worked together, there's a lot of the getting to know you time and learning how people work. For so many of us, we already know that, and I think that makes us get to a better place much more quickly.
Braden Hunt: There's a little bit of a generation gap-different people were at Masquerade at different times. So, I actually haven't worked with Eric or Adam. Or that guy. (Others laugh) What's your name?
ERIC FERGUSON: Eric.
Braden Hunt: Eric.
Michael Ross: So, that's a good point, actually.
Braden Hunt: Yeah, so different generations of Masquerade are here.
John Dunn: I've been to Masquerade once. (Everyone laughs.)
John Dunn: Am I the only one?
Michael Ross: Yeah.
REBEKAH DAHL: You're alone.
John Dunn: Oh
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: (At the same time as John Dunn) Awww.
JOHN GREMILLION: It's true though. There's a kind of energy that comes from working in a rep company that you can't really recreate with people who've just met for the first time in a show. So, it's always better to have people who have worked together before.
ERIC SCHELL: Well, for me, it's cool because I haven't worked with Cay (Taylor), or John (Gremillion), Rebekah (Dahl), Brad (Scarborough) in a while. Like, in a while!
JOHN GREMILLION: A few years.
ERIC SCHELL: Because they left Masquerade before we did.
ASSASSINS is definitely a politically charged show, what do you think audiences will take with them when it opens in October?
Braden Hunt: That depends on how the debates are going. (Several members of the cast laugh.)
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: It's a challenging show. It's thought provoking. It's not necessarily about-you know, we've set it at a time when there is a political energy going on. It goes right up to the election. We open and we lead right up to it-It's not necessarily about politics though or about parties or even necessarily about the American ideal. It's about what can happen, what we can do to the American ideal. It might make people question what can happen in a society where you're told-I mean, the whole thing opens with "Everybody's Got the Right (To Their Dreams)," but what happens when maybe not everybody does achieve their dreams or has the ability to. Personally, I think it's also about some people who regardless of what they were given or their circumstances might have ended up in a dark place anyhow. So, I think there are questions of when you are in a system how much is about the person and how much is about the system. First of all, they'll leave hopefully excited about the energy of the actors and the piece, and a piece that's rarely seen and rarely put on stage and that's a new thing for all of us here in this space, but also with thoughts about the show and questions about the American ideal, about the people in America, about the systems that we kind of take for granted or we live in or live on the outskirts of.
Michael Ross: I'll add on to that to say that we are not here to preach our political views or ideals on gun control. First and foremost, (several members of the cast laugh) it's to entertain people.
REBEKAH DAHL: I'm packing right now. (Everyone laughs.)
Michael Ross: And then, to make them think. That's what I want. Those two things, those are my goals for the show.
LUKE WROBEL: There's also an element of history, of American history, that I think is fascinating. It's interesting, characters you might not have known about pop up and you want to get to know them. Just reading the script, I want to do some research and figure out who these people were. I think the play does a good job of getting to the heart of each one of these people, so it's...
REBEKAH DAHL: It's like a super-entertaining history lesson.
LUKE WROBEL: History lesson, really. And I think that's fun. For me, as an audience member, that's what I would take away from it, if I were seeing the show.
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: It's interesting also because it's a history lesson, but it's not a static one, where you necessarily go in the order of history. It's woven together in a way that makes you kind of compare the 1960s to late 1800s. It's interesting to look at history from that context from that perspective.
John Dunn: And actually, it's helped me win a couple of points in a trivia tournament (Several cast members laugh), says the funniest person in the room. (Everyone laughs) This is actually a true story. I was at The Harp a couple of weeks back for trivia, and the question was, "In what state was McKinley shot?" So I was going through the song in my head. (Sings the "Ballad of Cozlgosz") "At the Pan-American (Michael Ross joins in) Exposition/In Buffalo!"
John Dunn: Buffalo! New York! (Everyone laughs) So, it actually helped me win a point on a trivia question.
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: Did you win the whole thing?
John Dunn: No.
LUKE WROBEL: Funniest, but not the smartest. (Everyone laughs)
STEPHANIE BRADOW: I think ultimately, it's about the people. I mean, I think that a lot of the times we get swept up, especially now in media coverage of someone who has done this riotous act, and you never hear where they came from or what their story is. And I think, ultimately, this is a lot of people's stories, it just happened to be connected by violence.
Braden Hunt: I hope that it like-maybe this is kind of political-I think that American's are a little too entitled and they have this sense of entitlement. I think that the play kind of checks that a little bit. At least, I kind of got that from it, and I like that.
REBEKAH DAHL: The whole pursuit of happiness thing is a frightening thing. To tell people that, they go from pursuit of happiness to I am allowed happiness.
Michael Ross: I think you deserve the right to be happy, but you do not deserve to be happy.
REBEKAH DAHL: Right.
Michael Ross: And I think that where that line gets blurred is where we tell our story.
REBEKAH DAHL: Exactly.
JOHN GREMILLION: We do performances before the election, and a couple right after.
Michael Ross: Right.
JOHN GREMILLION: So, the way that the audience feels about it, about what they see and hear, is going to be very different, how they react to it, depending on who gets elected.
Michael Ross: I've been thinking about how that dynamic is going to change.
JOHN GREMILLION: It's going to be very strange.
LIZ TENDER: I feel like both sides, no matter who you really go for, are going to see something different and enjoy it in different ways, whether you're necessarily rooting for a president to get shot or you're rooting for them to succeed. And I find it really interesting also that we're starting this rehearsal process before one of the greatest tragedies that has ever happened in our country. I feel like that is going to charge up, at least my personal drive, to delve in and really get real with these people.
John Dunn: And that tragedy involved crashing a plane into a building, which one of the assassins had as his plan. He was going to crash into The White House.
Michael Ross: That's John Gremillion's character, Sam Byck.
And ultimately delayed the Broadway revival for three years.
Michael Ross: That's right. That's right. It was supposed to happen a week after the attacks, and it got pushed back three years. They changed some cast members.
ERIC SCHELL: At our first read-through, one of our little kids, he didn't even know about September 11th.
Michael Ross: We talked a lot at our first read-through how the Kennedy assassination was a defining moment in everyone's life, and in our generation September 11th is that. It was very interesting, Duncan Lambert who is the 8 year old in our cast, who is not here today, but we were all talking about where we were and what we were doing at that moment, and he really didn't have any sort of frame of reference of what we were discussing. That's interesting and distressing to me at the same time. Just one generation down doesn't even know what we're saying.
Braden Hunt: He was born in 2003.
Michael Ross: Yeah.
Sondheim seems to suggest that these assassins are born from America's political culture. Do you personally agree or disagree?
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: I think that there's psychosis everywhere and in every country, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with where you're born. That's my personal opinion. Obviously, these people were extremely mentally ill for the most part. There are ideas that you get fixated on, but I don't think that's America's fault necessarily.
LUKE WROBEL: Yeah, like it's universal.
John Dunn: It's interesting to see how comfortable people are with the political aspects of the show. I've heard that people do get very disturbed by the show. I think that it's great that there is a song in it called "Something Just Broke" that gets the temperature of your normal rank and file, middle-class American about how they felt, where they were, what they were doing when JFK was shot. It's interesting to see, especially in this current political environment that we're going through, you know, in light of the recent Battle of Chik-Fil-A (several cast members giggle) to see how people respond to this type of contact. Some people will take it as a history lesson and some people will get very offended and hopefully not leave at intermission.
REBEKAH DAHL: There's no intermission!
MANY: (In unison) There is no intermission!
Michael Ross: If they leave, it'll be real obvious.
John Dunn: So they're stuck here. They're stuck here.
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: I think that you could have probably found a collection of individuals like this in Europe or in any other continent, honestly, within their own cultural frame. But, I think, if you want to relate it to the idea of the American culture, it works well in that way. In the lines of what Braden (Hunt) was saying about the sense of entitlement, the sense that just because our country's vision of everyone having the right to pursue these things is unlike other cultures. So, it lends itself well to that, but I don't think it's necessarily a product only of this culture.
Theatre is filled with all kinds of odd characters, but does it feel weird to play presidential assassins?
Michael Ross: I asked the question at our first read-through a few weeks ago if-all of us have played a wide variety of roles-but to put yourself in the psychology of their world that's your job as an actor and this is a question I'm going to ask over and over again, "How do you wake up in that morning, put a gun in your bag, drive to the parade in San Francisco, and pull a gun on the president? What is your mind thinking? What are you thinking on the way there?" All those little details along the way are what I am fascinated by with these characters. I think it's an incredible challenge to put yourself wholly in their shoes and in their minds, and that's why I think it's incredible to play these roles for these guys and myself too.
REBEKAH DAHL: I think you certainly have more given circumstances to work on because it's a historical person, so that's always good because you have lots of research that you can do. You don't have to use your imagination as much as you would with a character that never existed in reality. So, for that point, it's a little bit easier as an actor because you've got stuff to go on. You've got videos you can watch and biographies you can read.
Braden Hunt: Unless you really don't like doing research and you prefer to make things up. (Everyone laughs)
REBEKAH DAHL: Is that you, Braden? (Everyone laughs again)
LUKE WROBEL: There's an element of the extreme that's always fun to play. I mean, these are all characters that are, you know, on the extreme of life. That's always a blast. You know, there is really no middle ground. You're going for it out there. To take those kinds of risks and push yourself, it's fun. As an actor it's challenging, but it's fun. It's a blast. Who doesn't like playing the villain?
STEPHANIE BRADOW: Exactly. It's also a little bit dangerous, I think. I just remember having a lot of conversations with Rebekah (Dahl) about turning it off when you leave at night, and in this sense you've got to turn it off. (Laughs) There's a little bit of pumping yourself up, and then what do you do to bring yourself-you know, you start listening to the news and you're running into a tree on the side of the road...
CAY TAYLOR: I don't watch the news. (Some members of the cast laugh)
REBEKAH DAHL: A good bottle of Malbec (more of the cast laughs) will solve that problem. It's a cure all. (All laugh)
STEPHANIE BRADOW: But you definitely have to figure out a way to get it out too, afterwards. Spend it all on stage, I guess.
Michael Ross: That's a good point.
CAY TAYLOR: I think it's reminded me to have empathy towards other people because I think we, as a society, are so quick to judge, to point the finger, and to say, "they tried to assassinate or did assassinate a president, they're just crazy." But, especially delving into the life of a historical figure, and learning about how this person grew up and learning about all the hurdles they had to jump over, or sometimes fall over, has really brought a sense of empathy into my world. So, when I see someone else around now, I'm much more curious than condemnatory.
Michael Ross: But, I think that's one of the goals of the whole show is to get people to think about the people and their lives in a different way. I feel like politically, in this country, we're just getting more and more where we don't listen to anything anyone has to say. "I'm right and don't confuse me with the facts." And that's part of the message I want to get across-think twice about people before you judge them.
The 2004 Broadway Revival is notorious for its coup de théâter. Can Houston audiences expect any surprises in this production?
Michael Ross: I don't want to give away any surprises. (Everyone laughs) Yes, there will be surprises.
Hopefully Houston audiences are excited to see this show already; if they are not, why should they be?
LUKE WROBEL: You're looking at them. (The whole cast laughs)
REBEKAH DAHL: Yeah, that's what I was going to say. Without sounding egotistical, this is a great cast. It just is. You've got some of the best actors in Houston in this room, and some of the best singers. So, I'll just say that on their behalf.
LIZ TENDER: I feel like there's a lot in this piece that you're not going to get from most theatres anywhere. Not even in just Houston, but most theatres don't want to touch this type of show. I feel very excited to be a part of it, and I'm really excited to see what people are going to say; whether it be good or bad. I think it's going to be definitely an interesting run.
CAY TAYLOR: Not only are we going to touch it, but we're going to immerse them in it. There's something very unique about the actual space it's being produced in, so the audience really has no choice but to engage.
Michael Ross: Good point.
REBEKAH DAHL: (Looking at the front row) Especially if they're sitting in those seats. (Everyone laughs)
I know rehearsals are just getting underway, but as of now what are your favorite parts of ASSASSINS?
Michael Ross: Sam Byck's monologue. (Many members of the cast nod and murmur in agreement) One of my favorites.
Braden Hunt: Which one?
Michael Ross: I like them both. I really love the second one.
John Dunn: I like the song "Something Just Broke" because I feel like it ties this whole thing together.
REBEKAH DAHL: I love that scene with Sara and Squeaky. (A lot of the cast says "Yes.") It's a very fun to me.
KRISTINA SULLIVAN: I like the whole-it's a monster of a scene-but in the [undisclosed location] is pretty intense. I mean you build build build, and then you get to it, and just from the vantage point of scriptwriting and character, you know, and how they all begin to interact, I think it's a pretty brilliant moment.
ERIC SCHELL: The finale. I mean, when I watched it on the Tony's; just chills. Like, I get chills. Them in that line and the gunshots, I don't know. It's cool. (Everyone laughs)
This darkly comic and intimate production of ASSASSINS will run at Houston's Music Box Theatre from October 19, 2012 to November 11, 2012. For more information and tickets please call (713) 522 – 7722 or visit http://www.themusicboxtheater.com/.Photo courtesy of Michael Ross and Music Box Musicals.
Music Box Musicals' Cast of ASSASSINS