Don’t expect happy-ever-after in the first musical presentation of Morningside College’s Betty Ling Tsang Summer Fine Arts Series
The season launches with the Tony Award-winning musical “Assassins,” which depicts those men and women – all who killed or attempted to kill U.S. presidents – who are part of the worst moments in U.S. history.
David Herold (Nick Anderson) was an accomplice in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Emma Goldman (Geena Schneider) served as an inspiration for Leon Czolgosz (Kevin Earlywine) who kills William McKinley. Charles Guideau (Matthew Miller) is the madman who kills James Garfield. John Hinckley (Charlie Morgan) shoots at Ronald Reagan. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromm (Melissa Gulbertson) and Sara Jane Moore (Wendy Bryce) set their sights on Gerald Ford. Samuel Byck (Bill McKinney) used a plane in his unsuccessful attempt on the life of Richard Nixon. Giuseppe Zangara (John Kallahan) tried to off Franklin D. Roosevelt and ended up killing the mayor of Chicago.
Tying all of the loose ends together is the Balladeer (Randy Peters) and the Proprietor (Collin O’Connor) who act as narrators of the show. Rounding out the cast is Katie Rasmussen, Autumn Knipp, Chris Johnson, Kris Johnson and Jacob Licht.
“Assassins” has been a controversial musical since it premiered off-Broadway in 1990. Yet director Michael Skaff points to that as part of the appeal of the show.
“Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living musical theater composer/ lyricist. Some would say the greatest of all time,” he said of the lyricist. “So, whenever I have an opportunity to direct a Sondheim show, I jump at it. I particularly like the music in this show because it reflexes the style of the time when the assassins lived. For example, during the scene involving Zangara (who tried to kill FDR), Sondheim has incorporated a Sousa March with lyrics commenting on the assassination attempt.”
In addition to the music, Skaff cited the characters as having their own special appeal.
“The show does not paint them as merely evil crazy people, although some of them were clearly insane, but it offers possible motives for their crimes,” he said. “I would never say that their actions were justified, but after looking at their histories, I have found an understanding into why they did what they did. Booth thought that he could help the ravaged south by killing Lincoln.”
James Moreton portrays John Wilkes Booth in the musical. The theatre coordinator at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Ky., acknowledged Booth had redeeming characteristics that others might not be aware of.
“He was really devoted to the Southern cause and was loyal to his death,” he said. “The fact that he lived and acted in his more-famous brother’s shadow his whole life had to make him a little frustrated and determined to make his mark somehow. It’s sad that it had to be this way. Whether it was intentional is anybody’s guess. His theatrical exit from Ford’s Theatre – jumping from the box onto the stage and proclaiming ‘Sic simper tyrannus!’ – certainly suggests he wanted to be remembered.”
“Assassins” is not a typical upbeat musical, yet that’s what Moreton liked about it.
“The show is just so wonderfully black in its view of going for your dream,” he said. “Even the least among us matters, and this show uniquely depicts that all of us need to be heard and understood.
Because the show is presented in a revue format, Skaff felt the audience would be equally entertained and challenged.
“It’s been fun to work on a show that does not follow a simple time line,” he said. “The assassins interact with each other in some scenes. I’m sure it may confuse some people – “Why are all these people from different times sitting in a bar drinking together?” or “Why are John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme singing a duet?” Others will find it an interesting and different take on history.”