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Sondheim's Unconventional "Assassins" Starts a Three-Week Run at SCT Center Stage

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)
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Who but Stephen Sondheim would conceive of a Broadway musical introducing the audience to nine of the most famous presidential assassins and would-be assassins in American history?  Sondheim’s musical Assassins opens a three-week run at Springfield Contemporary Theatre’s SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza (corner of Jefferson and Pershing downtown) September 16-October 9.  Directing the production is Gretchen Teague, with musical direction by Alex Huff, conducting what Rick Dines of SCT describes as “the largest orchestra we’ve had since the last Sondheim we did, Sweeney Todd.”

Rick, who also designed the sets and created the sound design for this production, plays the first assassin portrayed in the show, John Wilkes Booth. “It’s interesting approaching Booth as he was, through the bulk of his life, a Shakespearean actor.” Based on Rick’s research, he says Booth was “the most politically-minded—and motivated—of the lot.  It was right at the end of the Civil War, and he was a Southern sympathizer.”

Rick agrees that it’s an unusual idea for a stage musical.  He calls it “a very conceptual show. But at the same time, what he and (lyricist) John Weidman have done is, I think, really brilliant.  It’s surprisingly funny—very funny.  They kind of tell the story of each of them independently throughout the evening, interwoven, but at the same time they’ve kind of broken down history and let these people co-exist in a world together where they can interact—and compare notes to a degree.  But it’s a very interesting piece about American culture and our fixation and obsession with celebrity and violence, and where those meet.”  The show premiered off-Broadway in 1992, so yes, John Hinckley IS included—he’s the last “assassin” profiled.

Seth Dylan Hunt pulls double-duty in this SCT production as the Balladeer who comments on and ties the stories together, and plays Lee Harvey Oswald.  Because he’s doing two characters, “I’ve taken it in a completely different direction.  I don’t think about portraying ‘Lee Harvey Oswald as he was’.  There’s so much (video) coverage available (both of the Kennedy assassination and of Jack Ruby’s killing of Oswald) that everyone has this image in their heads. So I thought, what if I took the Balladeer—and the Balladeer sort of throws off these offhanded comments—and sort of neatly wrapped these assassins’ stories a little too neat... and so the assassins say, ‘Well, what about you? Why don’t you try it?  Why don’t you put the shoes on and see how they fit?’ And I look at Lee Harvey Oswald in the show and I see anybody. Insert-name-here.  You could be anybody and pushed to these extremes.  But—everybody has a right to their dreams!”

However odd the subject matter may seem at first blush, he says Assassins “fits (Sondheim’s) twisted sense of humor perfectly. One of my favorite attributes of the show is that it asks the audience to think, and ask some questions about, their patriotism: what kind of American are you?  What kinds of Americans are these people, that they were led into this way of thinking, that the only way out for them was to take a shot at the President, or to kill the President?”  Asked what the audience learns about these would-be and successful Presidental assassins, Seth says, “They’re Americans! The simplest thing, but what we learn is that they’re Americans, just like you and me.”  Rick Dines adds that the show feels every bit as topical now as it did when it first opened in 1992—and not just because John Hinckley was just released from the hospital, or the fact that it’s a contentious election year. He says it’s because of this idea of “patriotism at extreme ends of the political spectrum.”

Perhaps ironically, Assassins is “probably Sondheim’s most hummable score maybe since (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the) Forum, that he possibly ever wrote,” says Rick Dines with a chuckle.  “Because we’re covering about 140 years of American history, it’s really based in popular American music.  So there is that Stephen Foster song, and there is that barbershop quartet, and there is a Sousa march—you know, all those iconic ‘Americana’ music styles appear in the show.  I think it’s a beautiful piece, and I’m excited to see it with an audience.”  Seth says he saw Sondheim speak in Tulsa, and the composer claimed that Assassins was the score “that he felt best came out of his head and onto the page exactly the way he heard it in his head.”  

Performances of Assassins will runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm now through October 9 at SCT Center Stage. For ticket and performance information call Springfield Contemporary Theatre at 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.