Peter Rothstein had announced plans to produce “Assassins” when two events confirmed that it was the right time to stage the Stephen Sondheim musical about people who shoot presidents.
The first was last summer, at a concert staging of “Assassins” in New York.
“When they reached the line ‘Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,’ for a minute the show just stopped and people cheered,” said Rothstein, citing a song sung by John Wilkes Booth (“The Ballad of Booth”) in the show. “And then the singer gets to, ‘Every now and then a madman is bound to come along’ and it was the same thing: People cheered for a minute.”
Then, last fall, he was at a charity event when a stranger twice joined circles of people Rothstein was chatting with and introduced the topic of our current president, asking, “Can’t someone just shoot him?”
Says Rothstein, “I thought, ‘My God. Could I imagine my parents at a cocktail party — even with friends, never mind strangers — sharing a thought like that?’ ”
“Let them cry, ‘Dirty traitor!’ They will understand it later. The country is not what it was.”
“The Ballad of Booth”
Rothstein has thought about staging the provocative show for years — he has a no-longer-secret aim for his Theater Latté Da to produce all of Sondheim’s works — but it’s been tricky finding the right time.
Opening this week at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, “Assassins” features strong language and guns, but most of the controversy stems from asking audiences to empathize (but not agree) with the twisted thinking of some of history’s most notorious people, including Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley Jr.
“We have a board member who was recommending it, two years ago, and I dismissed it: ‘No, no. Not the right time. The first African-American president is not the time,’ ” Rothstein said.
Also, while he loves the show, he wasn’t sure how to direct it.
“Maybe it’s because I’m an idealist, not a cynic, but I have struggled with finding its point of view, or being OK that maybe there isn’t a point of view,” he said.
What helped is the song “Something Just Broke,” which steps outside the stories of the assassins to show the audience the impact of the killers and would-be killers’ actions on a heartbroken public. That song was not in the original 1990 off-Broadway production — or in the first script Rothstein had for “Assassins” — but he said its addition to a 1992 London production helped him begin to unlock the musical.
“And, to be honest, the current political climate gave me a way in,” he said, citing a perception from the left and the right that something is broken in our government, as well as the epidemics of gun violence and untreated mental illness, both of which are themes addressed in “Assassins.”
“Nothin’ wrong about what I’ve done. Some men have everything and some have none.”
“The Ballad of Czolgosz”
“We’re trying to make it very, very clear that this show does not advocate that people take matters into their own hands,” Rothstein said. “But it does explore the psychology.
“People may say you shouldn’t empathize with this sort of behavior, but I don’t think that’s true. If you don’t empathize, how do you understand? How do you potentially change the course?”
There’s mental illness at the core of all of the characters in “Assassins” — from Charles J. Guiteau, who was angry at James Garfield for not making him an ambassador; to Hinckley, who claimed he attempted to kill Ronald Reagan to impress actor Jodie Foster — but Rothstein notes that they sought things most people seek: love, acceptance, fame, money, understanding.
“Assassins” gets that across with Sondheim’s trademark irony. “The Ballad of Booth,” for instance, contains shocking language as the murderer defends his actions, but it’s also the most beautiful song in the show.
“It’s so glorious, that piece of music,” Rothstein said. “There’s no way this piece could work as a play because the layering and juxtaposition of hearing people sing some pretty horrific things to this lush, gorgeous music is so important. Booth throws up the N-word inside the most glorious, lyrical line of the song.”
Those contrasts create some problems that Rothstein is using the rehearsal process to solve. For instance, Guiteau usually points a gun into the audience during “The Gun Song.” With a new outbreak of gun violence virtually every week, is that too much for an audience to take?
Rothstein loves that startling moment, which — irony again — also involves the play’s biggest laugh. But a call from a Latté Da subscriber, a psychologist at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, has given him pause.
“She said, ‘I’m not telling you what to do, and we’re huge fans of the theater, but as someone who has worked with people who have post-traumatic stress, it can be really, really problematic to have a gun pointed in their direction,’ ” Rothstein said. As rehearsals began, he was still deciding how to stage the moment in a way that does not glorify guns or unduly alarm audiences.
The History Theatre in St. Paul staged “Assassins” in 1993. The show’s director, Ron Peluso, who subsequently became the theater’s artistic director, isn’t sure he would handle guns the same way in 2018.
“[Bill] Clinton had just been elected and I don’t recall any serious flak, but I wasn’t the one sitting in the hot seat then,” he said. “We were on a thrust [stage], so it was a very intimate space, with the audience sitting 5 feet away, and that very last moment, all nine assassins fired their weapons right into the house. Then, there was a blackout. And probably the letters started pouring in.
“I think if I were the artistic director, I would have a new idea for a guest director coming in today.”
“Aim for what you want a lot. Everybody gets a shot. Everybody’s got a right to their dreams.”
“Everybody’s Got the Right”
“The genius of the piece is they’ve made these characters so logical, and even simpatico with, at least, my view of how I want the world to be,” Rothstein said. “So I’m trying to figure out this idea of: How do you empathize with them up to that moment when you need to judge them? Because you do need that.”
In an immersive twist, Latté Da’s “Assassins” will give audiences a chance to interact with the characters. An hour before the show, theatergoers will be able to go up on the carnivallike set to chat with and buy drinks from the actors while also participating in games such as break-the-balloon-with-a-dart.
“I like that there’s not this fourth wall,” he said. “The audience are the actors’ scene partners. And the carnival setting is even more poignant right now because the presidency has become a circus, and, whether we want to be or not, we are all at this circus. Over the course of the evening, we begin maybe to think about, ‘I was having fun and a beer in the carnival. I just took a picture with [would-be Gerald Ford assassin] Squeaky Fromme. But now it has become this horrific space.’ ”
There’s more of Sondheim’s irony in that disconnect, but the goal of the production is sincere and irony-free: If audiences feel empathy for the assassin who has just handed them a Dum-Dums sucker as a prize, suggests Rothstein, they may also make the effort to understand why someone might feel so hopeless and disenfranchised that they make a terrible, terrible mistake.
“There’s another national anthem, folks. For those who never win. For the suckers, for the pikers. For the ones who might have been.”
“Another National Anthem”