As the country grieves over yet another mass shooting and grapples with the question of what could drive anyone to contemplate such a hideous act, two productions of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman’s musical Assassins, which explores that question, are preparing to open in our area.
Clare Shaffer and Jay D. Brock, directing for Pallas Theatre and NextStop Theatre respectively, accepted our invitation to be interviewed. They responded with emails which arrived before Sunday night’s massacre in Las Vegas.
Pallas Theatre’s production will be first to open (October 5 for 8 performances at Capital Fringe’s Trinidad Theatre). NextStop Theatre’s offering follows (October 19 to November 12 in their Herndon, VA venue.)
Both companies added the musical to their schedules well before this year’s mass murders. Tracey Chessum of Pallas Theatre wrote: “We programmed Assassins to complement our new musical Crazy Mary Lincoln, as both musicals explore the impact of assassination on individuals and our nation.”
Two directors share what they’ve learned: She says: “We have to listen to the voices of those who feel silenced.” He says: “They felt they were promised something by the American dream that was not delivered by the American reality.”
- What most compelled you to work on Assassins?
Clare Shaffer: Assassins is one of my favorite musicals, and I felt that I could bring something new to it with this actor-muso [actors double as musicians] interpretation. In the current political climate, I was especially excited to work on charged material that explores sociopolitical disillusionment from a variety of perspectives.
Jay D. Brock: Being that my background is more in classical theatre and straight plays, I am always artistically drawn to musicals that are able to effectively tackle serious material. There is often an expectation about what a musical is supposed to do (entertain with song and dance – and make one feel happy leaving the theatre) and like most directors I like to challenge/break audience expectations.
In terms of this specific musical I think I was drawn to its relevance to where we still find ourselves as a nation. I want to be clear that my interest in this show far precedes the current election and is not a response to that outcome. I think the issues that are tackled in this musical are far greater any singular administration, in fact they are systemic to the very nature of the american experience. Ultimately what drew me to this piece is that it address some of the root problems in our American culture – and makes the audience complicit in their responsibility.
- Sondheim often writes about misfits and loners, perhaps never more true than in Assassins. Has preparing Assassins for the stage given you any insight into the personality of someone who would undertake such an extreme act?
Clare Shaffer: In this production, we explore a variety of psyches that emerge as a result of disillusionment with the American Dream– people who feel betrayed by their county and its government, and whose frustrations manifest in an attack on the system upholding it. To begin to comprehend these acts, we have to listen to the voices of those who feel silenced– we must try to understand the pain, social injustice, and shattered dreams that drive them. Malice is a deeply rooted thing, and Assassins is all about excavation.
Jay D. Brock: In a nutshell the entire musical is about exactly that; how does one get to the point that they feel their only recourse is take such extreme action? The musical in no way condones the actions of the assassins, but it does give them a voice – an ability to explain their reasoning for why they did what they did. This approach creates discomfort for me and hopefully the audience because you find yourself having a certain level of pathos for the assassins and yet feeling a need to distance that pathos from the acts of violence.
The assassins’ personalities range from the truly certifiable nature of Charles Guiteau, to the sharply focused, calculated, and passionate cause of John Wilkes Booth. Every assassin has a different level of mental stability and their reasons range from issues all over the political spectrum. But, the common thread that they all share is that they felt they were promised something by the American dream that was not delivered by the American reality. If there has been any insight into the reason for these acts it is a sharper understanding of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots; and a more focused recognition of the sharp polarization between the American privilege that I admittedly enjoy and the shadow America that does not share that same privilege.
- I saw Camelot shortly after President Kennedy was shot and, in the finale when the chorus sang “don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief shining moment? and sobs broke out from the audience. “Something just broke’ in Assassins refers to that same time. How are you approaching that scene?
Clare Shaffer: Camelot‘s ‘Finale Ultimo’ references a brief, shining moment of history when everything seemed beautiful, but could not last. Assassins’ ‘Something Just Broke’ deals with a brief, dark moment when everything seemed broken, but could be rebuilt. ‘Something Just Broke’ is the other side of the coin, the one glimpse we get of the ensemble of ‘typical’ American citizens and how they react to horrifying events. It is ultimately a song about a group of people who are collectively devastated and must find strength in each other to move forward.
Jay D. Brock: Ironically I have to be in rehearsal to address that scene in one hour from when I am writing these responses. I left the scene to last because I wanted to make sure that I had digested the rest of the musical before tackling it. The musical in a way presents two different arcs – the arc of the assassins which culminates in “Another National Anthem” and with the addition of the song “Something Just Broke” (in the revival edition) the writers have actually provided an arc for the ensemble as well.
I have approached the other two major ensemble pieces (How I Saved Roosevelt, and Ballad of Czolgosz) by setting the ensemble up as complacent bourgeois who seem to have no connection (empathy) to the assassins or the implications of the actions they took. In “Roosevelt” they are far more concerned with getting media attention and having a compelling story to tell than the fact that the assassin is being electrocuted right in front of them. Similarly in “Ballad of Czolgosz” they completely fail to notice the assassin moving through the crowd and intentionally ignore him as he passes by being that he clearly is not of their social circle. Once the shot is taken at the end of “Czolgosz” the implications actually rattle and shock the ensemble out of complacency which leads us to the more sobering timbre of “Something just Broke.”
In contrast to the wealthy upper class costumes in the other two ensemble pieces, I wanted to dress the actors in the modern dress of JFK’s assassination to have them better represent an every-man or a Greek chorus that has a connection to the audience. While “Roosevelt” has the ensemble recounting “what happened” in a manner that brings attention to the self – “Broke” challenges the ensemble to realistically grapple with the implications of what this means for their country and for their lives – and more importantly challenge the audience to ask ourselves what it means when we face a crisis in our modern history. Do we ignore what is happening and just go about our day? or do we let these events have an impact on us and potentially have an ability to change how we see the reality of the world and our place in it?
- Assassins plays out over a hundred years of American history. Scenically, how are you planning to show the periods?
from Pallas Theatre Collective
October 5 – 15, 2017
Details and tickets
Clare Shaffer: We’ve opted for a minimalist set– an abstracted, sepia-toned American flag with edison bulbs in place of stars. The playing space is ringed in carnival lights, transforming the theatre from a black box into a carnival booth. The sepia tone and edison bulbs lend a timeless feel to the whole affair, keeping the focus on the actors and the action. The time periods of each scene are indicated through period costuming for each character, rather than through scenic changes.
from NextStop Theatre
October 19 – November 12, 2017
Details and tickets
Jay D. Brock: Because the design team and I feel that time and place really are not paramount to telling this story we have decided to forego any overt scenic clues as to the time and place. We are hopeful that the audience will take cues from the props, gun styles, costumes, mannerisms, and songs. As you may be aware all of the songs, with a few intentional exceptions, are written in the popular musical styles of the period rather than in Sondheim’s signature style.
- I imagine Assassins is props heaven for someone. Who? Are guns the biggest challenge?
Clare Shaffer: Our brilliant choreographer, Pauline Lamb, happens to be an equally brilliant props designer– she is responsible for our props design. We had a separate source for our weapon props: local designer Brian Dettling, who provided us with excellent period replicas of all of the firearms through Stage Armament Solutions.
Jay D. Brock: Jade Brooks-Bartlett is our props designer and she has been doing a fantastic job of addressing the very specific requests of the show. The guns are certainly the most difficult props item both in terms of cost, and safety concerns. I would also say the period consumables have been a challenge, such as a KFC bucket and Budweiser from the 70’s
- Tell us a little bit about the performers we’ll be seeing.
Clare Shaffer: Our 17-person cast includes children, professors, college students, working professionals– knowns and unknowns. What they have in common is immense talent, passion for this show, and a willingness to go above and beyond what most productions ask to implement this ambitious actor-muso approach. They have risen to the challenge with wit, grace, and humor.
Jay D. Brock: A strong half of the cast are DC regulars that many audience members will recognize, the other half are either new to the musical theatre genre or new to the area. The cast is quite diverse between more legit musical theatre types, classical actors who sing, and opera singers. The Musical Director (Marc Bryan Lilley) and I were not looking for a homogenized sound, rather we wanted to find morespecific sounds that were fitting to the characters. We were very fortunate that the majority of the cast are trained musicians and have been quite astute with the difficulty of the score. In addition to talent we have also been fortunate to find actors that are age appropriate to the characters, which can be quite a challenge.
- This is a difficult score. Did you find the performers came already familiar with the music? How many musicians will you have?
Clare Shaffer: Some performers came into the process familiar with the score, and some learned it from the ground up. They had access to orchestrations before rehearsals began, so they had a chance to familiarize themselves with the material. Of the 17 performers, 15 play instruments and some are playing multiple instruments throughout the show. I cannot overstate the incredible work my collaborator Alex Thompson (our Music Director, who also plays ‘The Proprietor’) has done in turning this group of primarily actors into an orchestra.
Jay D. Brock: As mentioned above the actors are all quite strong sight readers and experienced musicians – so they picked the music up quite quickly. the pit I believe is 6 players – Two Keys, 2 Reeds, Bass and Drums. we also have the great fortune of our Balladeer (John Sygar) being quite capable on the guitar and will play quite a bit during the show.
- In this time of political division, instability, violence – both actual and threatened – what do you hope to convey by producing Assassins?
Clare Shaffer: In times of political division, the easy choice is to write the other side off as “crazy”, “stupid”, or even “evil”. The difficult choice is to sincerely ask “why” and make every effort to understand where the other side is coming from and what circumstances and ideologies led to their actions. To help bridge that daunting gap between perspectives, we can re-examine our accepted social and ideological systems and the way we function within them– acknowledge how we have failed each other as fellow citizens and begin to think about what we can do to make things better. I hope that this production encourages that kind of searching.
Jay D. Brock: I hope to convey our collective responsibility for the problems of this country. It’s easy to blame a particular “person” or group for our problems and while those people or groups certainly have an impact, it’s not enough for us to just sit around and talk about how angry we are and then do nothing until the next time we sit around talk about how angry we are. These problems have existed in our country for a long time (maybe since the beginning), and we have to see that they are all much greater than a single incident or entity.
I hope that I’m able to convey that there is a real divide between the notion of the American dream and the American reality for many of the citizens of this country. I hope we can be more like the little boy in “Ballad of Czolgosz” (who is the only one that speaks to him —offers him a sip of Coke) as the assassin moves to the front of the line to accomplish his deed. We discussed in rehearsal that perhaps Czologsz would not have gone through with the act that day had their been a little more understanding, connection, and concern and less complacency from the bystanders.