Theatre Pops produces an unconventional musical
A read-through of “Assassins” in late December
Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos. —Stephen Sondheim
Theatre Pops Artistic Director Meghan Hurley has been committed to “Assassins” since last year, no matter what the rest of the world decides to do. She’s not jaded, just ready for 2018.
The Stephen Sondheim–John Weidman concept musical deconstructs the lives of nine assassins or would-be assassins of U.S. presidents, and is notoriously challenging to stage effectively.1 The ensemble cast requires nearly a dozen actors who can convincingly portray historical characters and sing. And then there’s the risk of an act of violence prompting a cancellation, like with the Broadway production that was yanked after 9/11.
“The original play was written to start a conversation about people who are demonized, to see them as human beings,” said “Assassins” director Rick Harrelson.
The way he sees it, the more polarizing themes like mental health and gun control become, the more important they are to talk about.
“That’s the power of this kind of art. It makes people think about things they don’t want to think about,” Harrelson said.
On August 21, 2017, the moon orbited between Earth and the sun, and for a few eerie moments we lived in the moon’s shadow instead of the sun’s light. This was the first total solar eclipse visible across the country in nearly a century, and the most recent of the Saros 145 eclipse series.
Among astrologers, Saros 145 has a reputation for bringing turbulence and upheaval every 18.5 years: President Clinton’s impeachment coincided with the previous Saros 145 eclipse in 1999. Eighteen years before that, in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan; in 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who survived Giuseppe Zangara’s 1933 assassination attempt) died in office in 1945, shortly before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of those occurred around the time of Saros 145. Though 1927 didn’t see a presidential assassination, several riots and bombings occurred. In 1909 President Taft survived an assassination attempt.
But the stars incline, not compel. Hurley said there was absolutely nothing that could make her cancel “Assassins.” This will be a tricky production to pull off, planetary forecast be damned.
Her vision for the stage included dusty reds, yellows, and blues, a distressed Stars and Stripes, and a shooting gallery surrounded by guns and cheap prizes. Everything’s collapsible, ready to tear down at any moment. The doomed carnival aesthetic felt appropriate for a musical set in a time out of time, an everywhen of American dreaming.
“It’s not purgatory—not exactly,” Hurley said.
Mercury went retrograde for almost the entire month of December, which can complicate matters relating to travel, communication, and everything else with moving parts. Ostensibly, reaching negotiations is extra tough during Mercurial retrogrades: Computers are likely to crash and miscommunications abound. Through December, Hurley and Harrelson were stuck between the “boring stuff” (sizing costumes, ordering books, approving budgets) and the “try everything to see what works” phase of pre-production.
As above, so below.
It was a Monday, six days before Christmas, and a car wreck on the Broken Arrow Expressway caused actors to be late to the first read-through.
A dozen folding chairs were arranged in a circle in the back of Saied Music. As the chairs filled, those present were talking about “A Christmas Story Live!”—specifically the “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” number.
“Jane Krakowski maybe shouldn’t be allowed near children,” someone said.
This was the first time the “Assassins” cast were all in the same room at the same time, though almost everyone had friends in the circle and the unacquainted were quickly introduced.
At 6:45 p.m. the read-through began:
“Hey, pal,” said The Proprietor (played by Adrian Alexander). These first lines are meant to catch the attention of Leon Czolgosz (Jacob Brockunier).
The historical Leon Czolgosz was born in or near Detroit, Michigan, around 1873, to a poor immigrant family. As a child he had poor health, likely from tuberculosis.
“I mean you. Yeah, you.” The Proprietor has the aloof anarchist’s interest piqued. “C’mere and kill a president!”
On September 6, 1901, Czolgosz shot President William McKinley twice in the abdomen at point-blank range. McKinley died from an infection eight days later, and 45 days after that Czolgosz was sitting in an electric chair in Auburn, New York.
“I shot the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people,” Czolgosz declared before his execution. “I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none.” And then three jolts, each 1,800 volts, pulsed through his body, and he died.
Mike Pryor brought the accent he’d been working on for an affably evil John Wilkes Booth character, full of Southern charm in one moment and unflinching racism in the next. I cringed when Booth referred to Abraham Lincoln as a “nigger-lover.”
It’s easy to forget Booth was famous as an actor before he was infamous as an assassin. In fact, Booth’s public torch-carrying for Southern causes in the North was likely only tolerated because of his fame. Booth was easily able to access Lincoln’s private box at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, because he was regularly employed there as an actor.
After firing his derringer into Lincoln’s brain, Booth leapt to the stage, breaking his leg in the process. When the actor yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants!”)2 as if he’d rehearsed it, much of the audience assumed he was making a cameo.
“He was so infected and unbalanced by his profession that the world seemed to him to be a stage on which men and women were acting, living, their parts,” Booth’s contemporary Joel Chandler Harris said.
“Everything I know about history I know from musical theatre,” Pryor said.
Squeaky Fromme, the disciple of Charles Manson who tried to shoot President Ford in 1975, is the first historical character Liz Hunt has played. Her research included Jess Bravin’s 400-page biography “Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme.”
“The interesting thing about reading the book is we actually have a lot in common. She had a passion for theatre and a tough home life, which I can relate to. She’s a woman who believed deeply in something. I think there’s power in her story,” Hunt said. “I got online and watched an interview to see the way she talked, body language—especially the way she emoted when talking about Charles Manson.”
“Theatre should be disruptive,” she added. “It should make you think … even about things you don’t want to think about. A good dose of disruption is good for theatre. I’m excited to see how the audience feels about it.”
As of this writing, the Theatre Pops team is still hard at work on the show, which will run February 9–18.
For information on tickets and show times, visit theatrepops.org.
1) The distinction between assasination and murder hinges on the motivations of the aggressor—anyone can be assassinated if the killer is inspired by a political or otherwise fanatical cause. Assassin is also one of the more interesting etymological threads to untangle; we get our word from the Latin assassinus, derived from the Arabic pejorative hashshashin, literally meaning “hash user.”
2) Timothy McVeigh was wearing a t-shirt with “Sic semper tyrannis” below an illustration of Abraham Lincoln when Oklahoma Highway Patrol pulled him over for driving a car without a license plate in April 1995. The shirt is partially visible in his mugshot.