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March 30, 2008

A Musical Curse?

Last night I got a chance to see a musical that I’ve been dying to see for almost two decades.

Stephen Sondheim’s Assasins debuted off-Broadway in 1990, in the midst of the first Gulf war.  As a Sondheim fan and (at the time) something of a student (my wife would say obsessive) about the JFK assassination, I was intrigued by both the style and substance of the show.  Living in St. Louis, without the ability to actually go to New York to see the show, I had to be contented with the soundtrack and script.  I didn’t find out about a local production of the show in ’96 until it was too late to see it, and I wouldn’t have found out about this one either, had not one of my son’s theater friends invited him to go with her to Friday’s performance.  Not wanting to crash their night out, I went solo on Saturday. This field trip allows me to make two recommendations to my St. Louis readers.

The first is the Ivory Theater, a venue in the Carondolet neighborhood of South St. Louis that’s housed in a converted church (the old St. Boniface, if that means anything to anyone).  The atmosphere is professional but casual; the lobby folks repeatedly warned people that the show was staged without an intermission, and encouraged patrons to visit the restroom and grab concessions to bring into the theater with them. The interior is gorgeous, with comfortable seats and a nice performance area.  The theater is home to a number of the area’s more progressive, edgier theater troupes, including Hydeware and New Line, which will be staging the regional debut of High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel and John Cusack movie, in June.

The second is the show itself. The Broadway staging of the play has been somewhat cursed, despite winning a number of Tony awards (including Best Actor in a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical) for its 2004 revival, which co-starred Marion Cantone and Neil Patrick Harris. The original off-Broadway production had its entire run (not quite two months) during the first Gulf War, and the revival’s almost-three-month run occurred during the second.  While some would argue that times like these were the perfect times for such an insightful, introspective musical, the public, and, more importantly, the backers, didn’t seem to agree.

Assassins is a concept musical, more a series of vignettes and musical numbers than an actual story, featuring the men and women who have killed or attempted to kill the President of the United States, from John Willkes Booth (Lincoln) through John Hinkley (Reagan).   The non-musical book is sparse, with (from my memory) a scene between Leon Cszolsz (McKinley) and the anarchist Emma Goldman, a couple of scenes between Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (both of whom failed to kill Ford), one with Moore and Charles Guiteau (Garfield), and a couple of extended monologues by Sam Bick (Nixon, failed).  So most of the show is accessible simply by listening to the cast recording.

Due to its subject matter and abbreviated runs, Assassins isn’t performed often, so keep an eye out and see it if you get a chance.

For more information about the show, take a look at the wonderful essay “Inside Assassins“, available at the  New Line Theater’s homepage. Their Assassins Page has additional info and some great links as well.

The 300 Project: 16/57

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