Stephen Sondheim once said that “art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.”
The famed composer and lyricist of such shows as “Into the Woods,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Sweeney Todd” is also the creator of the Dramat fall mainstage production, “Assassins.”
“Assassins” departs from the usual concept of musical theater, with Sondheim plunging into the chaos of history rather than audience-friendly fare. The musical deals with presidential assassination from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, covering all but three such incidents and including attempts on the lives of McKinley, Ford, Nixon and Reagan.
The show has had a rocky past. An untimely revival by New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company was halted because it was scheduled to open on Sept. 12, 2001, and the show’s critical eye for national tragedies led the company to workshop the production and postpone its opening. Luckily for Yalies, the show should not face similar problems this weekend.
The Dramat’s take on “Assassins” goes up this Yale-Harvard weekend with new additions to the Roundabout version. So while everyone else is busy screaming their lungs out against the Cantabs, these talented performers will be saving their voices for the songs of Sondheim.
Professionally directed by New York’s Michael Scheman, the Dramat’s production of “Assassins” has been several months in the making. Scheman has commuted to New Haven every Thursday through Sunday to direct the show, and expressed delight with his work among Yale undergraduates.
“There have been a lot of laughs,” Scheman said. “Everyone here is to some degree an overachiever, but they bring that same degree of overachieving to this production.”
Some Yale thespians said they had a great time working with their director, as well.
“The funniest part of the rehearsal process was probably [when Scheman] brought his dog, Bailey, up from New York with him every weekend,” Sarah Minkus ’08, a member of the female ensemble, said. “Bailey is an incredibly well-behaved dog, but he did get stepped on a few times during choreography rehearsals.”
Scheman’s methods for developing the characters — which include John Wilkes Booth (Sam Frank ’06), Lynnette Frome (Felicia Ricci ’08), Sarah Jane Moore (Megan Stern ’06), John Hinckley (Andrew Ash ’08) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Andy Sandberg ’06) — were innovative. He had the actors who play assassins write a 3- to 5-page paper regarding their character, and each member of the ensemble wrote a paper on an assassination and its historical impact.
Another part of the preparation for the roles included a trip to a shooting range and a mock “press conference” where the rest of the cast ask questions of the actors playing assassins.
All of these exercises seem to have worked, as the actors’ portrayals are both hilarious and chilling. Sam Frank’s John Wilkes Booth comes across as a devoted Southerner wronged by Lincoln, making the audience truly and somewhat guiltily empathize with his cause.
Frank described his character as a template for future disgruntled souls.
“John Wilkes Booth was the first successful presidential assassin, and in the show he’s kind of the other assassins’ leader, their father figure,” Frank said. “So he has a certain gravitas.”
Stern and Ricci, as the Charles Manson-obsessed wannabe assassins, are a hilarious female duo that will have you rolling in the aisles with laughter — until you realize they are both semi-serious about killing President Ford.
Andy Sandberg, double-cast as the Balladeer (a kind of narrator character who connects the assassin stories) and Lee Harvey Oswald, manages to be both the show’s moral center and the center of its troubled soul. Sandberg and Doug Hummel-Price ’08 as the menacing Proprietor engage in a kind of angel-devil tug-of-war for the assassins’ souls, a relationship that is eerily subverted when Sandberg makes the transition to becoming Oswald. This duality makes the critical message all the more poignant for the audience.
Sandberg said he is not concerned with Yalies’ being able to pick up on the nuances of the political critique in “Assassins” or their ability to enjoy it.
“Yalies are smart enough to interpret from the title that this musical is not your typical boy-meets-girl love story,” Sandberg said. “It’s got a Sondheim score and a lot of guns … What’s not to like?”
Scheman also said the musical recognizes the national sorrow caused by assassinations and their attempts, but tries to address a harder question.
“What [the assassins] did was awful, but they are all Americans,” Scheman said. “This country produced all of these people. The show asks, how did that happen?”