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Stephen Sondheim musical looks to presidential 'Assassins'

Michael Harrison.jpg
Beth Accomando
Michael Harrison plays John Wilkes Booth in Wildsong Productions' "Assassins." Sept. 3, 2022

Wildsong Productions tackles the rarely produced Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins."

Wildsong Productions stages Sondheim's 'Assassins'

Stephen Sondheim is best known for musicals “Company” and “A Little Night Music” and for his collaborative work on classics, such as “West Side Story.” But he also created works that challenged expectations about what the American musical could be.

When Sondheim wrote "Assassins" in 1990 he expected a backlash. Political assassinations are not typical fare for musicals. But Sondheim at that time told the New York Times, “We're not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject.”

Amanda Blair is not apologizing either. She’s currently in rehearsals for "Assassins" at OB Playhouse.

"Imagine, if you will, all of the stories of the assassination attempts, apart from one, on U.S. presidents, whether successful or not, from the assassins perspective," Blair said.

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Beth Accomando
Amanda Blair directing "Assassins" at OB Playhouse. Sept. 3, 2022

"I'm always interested in pushing the envelope as a director, and I'm interested in stories that mean something to people," Blair said at a rehearsal on Saturday. "A big underlying theme in this show is the American Dream, and it's interesting to see different perspectives and different takes on what the American Dream means to these characters because it's not always the same. Those kinds of stories that challenge what we think the norm is are really what attracts me to wanting to display them for the world."

For Michael Harrison, who plays John Wilkes Booth, it challenged what he was taught in school.

"I was actually in high school American history class when the show premiered," Harrison said. "I remember having a conversation with my high school history teacher about, 'Hey, did you know this? Can we listen to this song in class when we get to [John Wilkes] Booth?' And even then I kind of could tell that there was something to be learned from music, and from the perspective and the emotional weight that music in a musical theater piece can have that just reading something on the page might not."

Kaitlyn Summers plays Sarah Jane Moore, who, until a fateful day in 1975, was just a typical suburban housewife.

"Then one day decided that she wanted to kill or attempt to kill President Gerald Ford, which is kind of a big through line of this piece, it is not always the people that you suspect," Summers said.

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Beth Accomando
Wildsong Productions' "Assassins" looks to presidential assassinations including that of William McKinley in 1901. Sept. 3, 2022

That’s why Blair is trying to make the experience of watching "Assassins" an immersive one.

"I have actors moving throughout the house," Blair said. "Some of them will be sitting in the house. They're making entrances and exits from all over the space. The idea being that if we're thinking about assassins in U.S. history, they came from sitting right next to you. And you never know where those people come from until they're there."

"They were normal people up to a point," Summers added. "It's your neighbor, it's the mom who lives down the street who picks her kid up from Little League."

Blair said, "We have those opportunities for the person doing the bad thing to be right next to you. That kind of little bit of on your edge. And it makes the audience a little bit uncomfortable, but I think in a good way."

Blairs’s not asking audiences to condone the acts of violence committed by these assassins.

"But I truly hope that they walk away from the show with more of an understanding," Blair said. "Not necessarily an acceptance, but an understanding for other people's viewpoints. I think that's a big problem that we've got in society today where we can have polarizing topics and this person does not want to listen to what this person has to say. You don't have to agree with what the person has to say, but I think it's important to understand where they're coming from."

And the theme of listening to what people — even assassins — say comes up repeatedly.

"They're feeling like they're not being heard," Blair explained. "The act that they commit won't necessarily help to get their voices heard per se, but it will get them attention. Listening is a big theme. I think that they turn to these acts of violence hoping that they will be heard and taken seriously, but it almost has the opposite effect."

Wildsong Productions opens “Assassins” Sept. 16 at the OB Playhouse.

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