A recap of presidential assassins since John Wilkes Booth in 1865 doesn’t seem like the recipe for a great musical. But, as composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has said of his controversial “Assassins,” “As far as I’m concerned, the show is perfect.”
Spinning Tree Theatre artistic director Michael Grayman-Parkhurst agrees, which is why the 1990 musical is next on his docket, the first professional production of the show in Kansas City. However, when he scheduled this show he probably never could have predicted its relevance as it is poised to hit the Just-Off Broadway stage on Wednesday.
Presented in a series of vignettes, the show traces the history of presidential assassins and would-be assassins, from Booth and Abraham Lincoln through John Hinckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan. Taking a little fictional liberty, the show delves into the motivations of each assassin through song, narrated by a Balladeer.
But Grayman-Parkhurst says these characters won’t be simply monsters. With a matter-of-fact, humane and even comical presentation, audiences may find themselves relating more to the characters than they may have thought — at least, in understanding why they did what they did.
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“It’s equal parts entertaining and political. It lets you, as an audience member, have your own opinion on things,” he said. “It doesn’t really shove anything down your throat in any way. It’s a conversation piece.”
Part of that conversation revolves around the causes that each assassin supported. Look at the many discontented Americans out for social justice today, Grayman-Parkhurst points out — adding that, of course, these assassins took things much too far.
For the actors, those motivations are key to making their otherwise-despicable characters intriguing, if not likable.
“These are people who have their own national anthem; they don’t identify with our national anthem,” said actress Julie Shaw, who plays Sara Jane Moore.
“They felt like they were repressed; they felt like they were unheard,” added Steven Eubank, who plays Giuseppe Zangara. “They were trying to find a family, find who that family is — for better or for worse.”
If you don’t recognize these names, you’re not alone; with a cast of 18, “Assassins” is equally as much a history lesson as an entertainment piece, highlighting some lesser-known historical figures. Nine assassins are featured, along with some of their political targets. (Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, while Zangara was an anarchist who tried to kill President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, in case you were wondering.)
Sondheim has been popping up in Kansas City somewhat frequently lately. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre presented “Sunday in the Park With George” in 2015 and the musical revue “Side by Side by Sondheim” in January and has scheduled “Sweeney Todd” for next spring.
Sondheim fans (or haters) may be in for a surprise if they haven’t seen the rarely produced “Assassins”: The typical Sondheim rat-a-tat musical style isn’t present here, as characters’ songs befit the popular music from their own eras. Combine that with a surprisingly empathetic set of characters, and “Assassins” isn’t your typical Sondheim musical (if there could be such a thing).
“If someone needs this to be a morality tale — the change that is supposed to be happening right now — they’ll find it,” said Eubank. “If someone else just wants to come in and feel a departure from our current political climate, I think they’ll find that, too.
“It’s very American folklore.”
Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of “Assassins” runs May 24 through June 11 at the Just-Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive. The show runs 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, and mature audiences are advised. See spinningtreetheatre.com or call 816-235-6222.
▪ Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “The Realistic Joneses,” about two troubled married couples, runs May 24 through June 11 at the City Stage at Union Station. See kcactors.org or call 816-235-6662.
▪ The Living Room Theatre presents the new vaudeville-set musical “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” May 24 through June 18 at 1818 McGee St. See thelivingroomkc.com. or call 816-533-5857.