Musical theatre has never shied away from unusual or controversial topics. We’ve seen shows about public toilets in Urinetown, misguided missionaries in The Book of Mormon, a serial killer in Silence! The Musical, and even a musical based on a talk show with Jerry Springer: The Opera.
But a musical built around the men and women who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate Presidents of the United States?
That is exactly what is coming to Halifax’s Bus Stop Theatre later this month as Whale Song Theatre presents the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman penned Assassins.
In this Tony Award-winning musical, Sondheim and Weidman unite the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Sara Jane Moore as they participate in a murderous carnival shooting game, and sing of why they ultimately took up arms against these leaders of the free world.
“It really reflects our current political and social climate, which is horrifying, but in this particular context, very entertaining,” says producer and actor Laura Thornton. “Which is a weird thing to try and reconcile internally, and really forces the audience to ask themselves some questions that make them uncomfortable.”
It wasn’t Assassins’ controversial content though, or any current parallels to what is currently taking place south of the border, that first got Thornton and director Ian Gilmore excited about doing the show.
“I would like to pretend that I had a brilliant programming breakthrough and went, ‘Yes, this is absolutely what the world needs right now’, but it very much just came from a deep-seated love we both had for Assassins, and for Sondheim,” says Thornton. “It’s a little shorter, we liked the music, and it had some really uniquely fun, quote unquote, messaging.”
Digging a little further though, Thornton and Gilmore quickly realized there was so much more to this 1990 musical, that continues to speak to audiences today.
“If everything has changed, then nothing has changed,” says Thornton. “And the show holds a very stark mirror up to that.”
But what does a musical involving assassins of the President of the United States have to do with us north of the 49th?
“I think the storylines in the play, as uncomfortable as they are, are actually quite relatable to Canadians,” says Gilmore. “There is something in all of these characters where an audience is going realize they haven’t thought about these things themselves, like the paranoia of their government and how it operates.”
“There’s very clear moments when you look at each of these characters and understand the motivation, because you have felt that frustration, or when you realize that you voted for somebody who made you promises that they were never going to keep”, adds Thornton.
Not, of course, that Thornton and Gilmore are remotely suggesting taking action like the historical figures in Assassins. Instead, it is very much a cautionary tale, and the reason they are helping raise funds for Mental Health Nova Scotia during the run of the show.
“This is a show that demonstrates what happens to mental health when it goes unchecked,” says Gilmore.
And even while Assassins deals in American history from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to the attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in 1975, Thornton and Gilmore are not worried about audiences having an intimate knowledge of what transpired.
“There is the Balladeer in the show who helps tell the story a lot of the time, including in some of the lesser known characters like Leon Czolgosz,” says Gilmore. “Not many people know exactly what went down then, but we have the Balladeer sort of narrating the way through that assassination on the motivation of what brought it on.”
Dealing in such controversial subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising to know Sondheim took some backlash when it first appeared Off-Broadway almost thirty years ago. Undaunted, saying he and Weidman were “not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject”, it is a sentiment held by Thornton and Gilmore.
“It is one of those shows that polarizes its audience,” admits Gilmore. “You go in expecting a happy, fun musical theatre show and you get something that’s very wildly different.”
It is for this reason Thornton is working hard to warn potential audiences, without scaring them off.
“As producer I’m trying very hard to make sure that everyone knows that the content is not family friendly, it’s going to ask hard questions, it’s going to make our audiences uncomfortable,” she says. “There’s very strong language, there’s disturbing imagery, a lot of violence obviously, but we don’t want anyone to leave the show feeling like it was too much. Our goal is that they’ll leave knowing that while things can be dark, there’s always hope.”
It is precisely because of Assassins’ dark subject matter that makes it so compelling.
“It is not what you normally expect from a musical,” says Thornton. “It’s a show that’s going to make you ask questions, start a conversation, and make you a little uncomfortable. But at the same time, you leave with a better understanding of where we are right now as a society, and I think it allows you to find your place a little bit better.”
“This show does what every great American musical does, it takes the temperature of the country and becomes a warning sign,” adds Gilmore. “And there are a lot of parallels to be drawn in the fact history is continuously repeating itself, with issues like the #MeToo movement, the 1% all coming into play in this show.”