Arts & Culture

Assassins exposes dark side of the American dream

Decades-old show now more relevant than ever

Photo: Susan Benoit

An outsider, cut off from the American dream, fires bullets through blood and bone. He murders to grab the limelight or to silence the voices in his head – or some mixture of both.
Then he sings about it.

Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical opening Jan. 17 at Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Warehouse, could’ve been inspired by December’s headlines if it wasn’t already 20-years-old.

The Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning play, which unites a chorus line of successful and would-be assassins from U.S. history, opened Off Broadway during the first Gulf War to scorn for its “unpatriotic” meditations on Americans who’ve killed when the national dream of success failed to unfold. Now, the show seems prescient.

 “Man, every time we do this show, it keeps getting more relevant,” said Adam Brazier, who directs the Toronto-based Talk is Free/Birdland Theatre production.

“The (U.S. Senator) Giffords shooting happened the last time we revived the show and since then we’ve had god knows how many shootings. It’s frightening when you think about how gun crazy America is; a quartet in the show sings about how one little finger move can change the world and you see in the news how 26 worlds were just ended.”

For Brazier, combining socially resonant questions with musical theatre’s enchanting style makes Assassins the perfect show, even if the play’s carnivalesque atmosphere, darkly funny script, and uplifting score jarred some reviewers of past productions.
 “There were certain critics who weren’t used to it,” said Brazier. “Some people hold a perception of Canadian musical theatre that’s somewhere between mime and juggling in terms of artistic integrity. And to those people I say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”

“This play asks questions that are not inherently asked by the American people – until now. It holds the American dream accountable… It’s an interesting piece for a bunch of Canadians to do, because we come to it with our own sets of values, opinions and questions, which come through in the production.”

That’s the paradox of Assassins: it draws audiences into sympathetic understandings of people who commit horrific acts. For Geoffrey Tyler, who plays the show’s over arching narrator The Balladeer, his own experiences of alienation and loneliness help him understand a person who would take a life.

“I think it’s easier for me to empathize with feelings of alienation; I’m not sure I can empathize with the desire to pull the trigger. There’s the fantasy, though, of what we could do if we were different people. I think people come away from this show feeling they understand the characters and wondering if they could to the same act sitting in their seat.”

“There’s a great Bob Dylan quote,” he added,” that goes ‘If there’s violence in the times then there must be violence in me.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

Assassins runs Jan. 17 to Feb. 2 at MTC Warehouse as part of the Master Playwright Festival celebration of the works of Stephen Sondheim. For tickets and info, head to