BWW Interviews: Toronto's 'John Wilkes Booth' (Paul McQuillan) Talks ASSASSINS

The critically acclaimed Talk is Free/Birdland Theatre Production of Assassins in Toronto just announced a two-week extension, and BWW is excited to be able to bring its readers two exclusive interviews with members of this very talented cast. The show was a smash-hit last year and is proving to be even more successful this time around, with sold-our performances and solid reviews.

Assassins is one of Sondheim's more recent works, and is a dark show with difficult subject matter by any standards, however it is handled beautifully by this very talented cast. Directed by Adam Brazier (the AD of the newly formed Theatre 20 group) and with musical direction by Reza Jacobs, the show is a delight and the performances captivating. Today we are featuring an interview with Paul McQuillan, who planys the first "Assassin" who started it all - John Wilkes Booth. He speaks about the role but also about the challenges of Sondheim, and the future of musical theatre in Toronto and on Broadway.

What is it like doing a remount with a few new cast additions? Have they been able to adjust quickly and are you all working well together?

When we first mounted this production, we had almost four weeks rehearsal. This time we had two, which is fine if you've already done the show.

The new people had a daunting amount of material to learn, never mind capturing the essence of each of their characters and enabling it all to sink in.

I was humbled by their work-ethic and humility. They respected the process in two ways: embracing and trusting what we conveyed as elements that already work, and courageously adding some fresh new ingredients to the piece.

You play John Wilkes Booth, a role originated by Victor Garber and which earned Michael Cerveris a Tony Award when the revival played on Broadway in 2004. Were you able to see either of those men perform the role? If so, did it influence your portrayal at all?

Luckily, I did not see either of their performances. I am sure they were both brilliant but our director had an entirely different concept in mind with this production and it was important for me to authentically mold Booth into that vision. I feel like attempting a star-turn of any kind in this piece would be very dangerous and miss the point entirely. The collective mindset of the assassins is key in this ensemble piece.

Naturally, I'm not saying that either of these established performers made it about them, but I might have had that impression if I had seen their renditions, and I never want to fall into that trap.

I love working with a clean slate.

We hear many actors say that Sondheim's work is more difficult than most to perform, and certainly your predecessors in this particular show are accomplished Sondheim performers. Do you agree that his work presents a unique and difficult challenge? How do you approach it as an actor?

In truth, I curse Sondheim every once in a while when, in the span of 8 bars, I have to sing in a 2-octave range. It's acrobatic, dissonant writing at times, and it is very challenging.

That said, it's never gratuitous. The money notes are appropriately and strategically placed and the man knows about musical texture, no doubt. He rarely concerns himself with what I like to call mindless melodies. His music has longevity. I always see him as the Mozart of music theatre.

As for this particular script, it's a gift. I can't imagine any actor not wanting to embrace its richness.

Is there a particular role of Sondheim's you have always wanted to tackle?

In all honesty, it's this one. When Adam Brazier, the director, first talked to me about the possibility of doing the role a year before the actual auditions, I thought about it obsessively. I was confident that I could give it a proper turn and I rarely feel that about a role. That it all came to fruition is something for which I will always be grateful. I've heard it said that good luck is when opportunity and preparation meet. It was just the right time.

This is an all Canadian show, of which there aren't many right now, are you hopeful that if shows like this are embraced by Toronto theatre audiences we can see more in 2011?

Naturally, I would love to see more challenging projects like this embraced by the producers of theatre in Toronto and everywhere. It's a tough business venture at the moment because audiences seem to be embracing juke-box musicals and commonly known fare. It is less of a risk for a producer to stage Rock of Ages than Assassins on a large scale, it would seem.

Frankly, it disappoints me. It is a trend that is being perpetuated, feeding the status quo.
Broadway used to make the music. Now the music makes Broadway. People know the songs before walking into the theatre. What kind of theatrical discovery is that?

On the same note, Broadway used to create stars and now the stars create Broadway. There is Little Room to foster great talent when a sitcom star is needed for box-office revenue.

Finally, for those people who are fence-sitting about coming to check it out, what would you say to encourage them to visit Assassins?

In the 22 years that I have been performing professionally, I have NEVER seen more superlatives thrown on a show than this production of Assassins. That is not a back-handed compliment to myself or anyone involved. It is simply a truthful observation.

I think people are amazed by the scope and potency of the message in this piece. The subject matter is pertinent, sensitive (especially with recent events), boldly daring and, I believe, necessary.

When and Where?
The Theatre Centre

Performance Schedule:

January 6th-23rd, 2011
Returns January 31st, 2011 for an extension until February 13th, 2011

Monday - Sunday 8PM (no Tuesday performances)
Matinee Performances at 2PM on Saturday and Sunday

TICKETS: $39.55 + $2 facility fee (previews 6 & 7 Jan $28.25 + $2 facility fee)

TO BOOK: in advance from ARTS BOX OFFICE 416.504.7529 /

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