Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Assassins
A new musical by Stephen Sondheim is usually met with rabid curiosity and excitement leading up to its opening, so in 1990 when the musical Assassins readied itself at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, theatre fans couldn't wait to see the result. We were all more than ready to see how Mr. Sondheim would create songs for the disillusioned men and women who attempted (and sometimes succeeded) killing Presidents of the United States. John Weidman would provide a book that used the failed American Dream as the through line to bring these notorious character into the same world. With Jerry Zaks at the helm as director, and a cast that included a vast array of Broadway's finest talent (Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, Debra Monk, Annie Golden, Jonathan Hadary, Lee Wilkof among them) Assassins looked to be something unique in musical theatre terms. Everyone assumed it would be well-received and then transfer to Broadway where it would settle in for an artful but not particularly long run. It didn't.
The musical concluded its run at Playwrights Horizons in February of 1991, right around the time that The Gulf War was in full swing. Somehow a musical about people who assassinate American leaders was deemed unpatriotic at the time and the general consensus was that it was not an appropriate time to bring Assassins to Broadway. The mixed reviews may have also had something to do with it, since critics appeared very divided about Sondheim’s latest endeavor. Many found the piece uneven, even complaining that the score (a glorious pastiche of American music styles: barbershop, folk, Sousa-style marches) was not up to the maestro’s usual standards. For whatever reason, Assassins was put on the back burner to simmer until a later date.
It would not be until 2004 (14 years after its debut) that Assassins would finally receive its Broadway production. The Roundabout Theatre Company mounted Assassins at its Studio 54 location with Joe Mantello directing. The musical was embraced as the hit of the season, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival (even though it was its first Broadway production - oh, those Tony rules). Okay, it ran for a limited engagement of 101 performances, but it was embraced as an important piece of musical theatre, so it's short run is super ceded by the fact that it has demonstrated a generous shelf-life in theatres around the world. This revival interpolated new material, including the song “Something Just Broke” which was written for the London premiere of Assassins. It also combined the roles of the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, giving the piece an additional gravitas of haunting coincidence and spectral fate. The role of the Carnival Barker was also augmented, giving his dark presence additional weight when each assassin stepped up to perform their deadly deed. This was an Assassins on a Broadway scale and the piece resonated with both audiences and critics. Assassins has finally found its way home and staked its claim as an important piece of musical theatre.