By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It wasn’t a cozy, heartwarming musical. And it was hard to tell whether the audience, on opening night, had locked onto the complicated premise. Even so, by the time “Assassins” drew to a close, my face was wet with tears.
The drama department at Seward County Community College, along with various local and area singers and actors, presented Stephen Sondheim’s edgy, dark musical last week.
Choosing “Assassins” was a daring move on the part of director Alison Bridget Chambers, who staged the production with music instructor/director Magda Silva. It approached history from a decidedly untraditional angle. It contained a lot of cursing, even in its toned-down SCCC version. Even the music was complicated, made of fractured, overlapping pieces of poetry that felt more like a mosaic than a melody.
Biggest challenge of all? It had no warm, fuzzy ending. Even action movies give us that last bit of satisfaction.
But that isn’t the point of this musical, nor is it really the point of studying history. Rather, history offers us a chance to examine the might-have-beens, the what-ifs, and the choices made by others. Those choices are not always clear, even in hindsight, though it’s human nature to want to agree on one version of what happened. We like to feel we are right.
At first, “Assassins” allowed me to feel a bit complacent. Nearly half the assassins were clearly off-kilter, if not mad. I didn’t have to wrestle much with the question of why Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield after his request to become the U.S. Ambassador to France was met with laughter. Guiteau was a classic narcissist, a con man, a loon.
Nor did I feel conflicted about the would-be killers of President Gerald Ford, played by SCCC-ATS president Duane Dunn. Both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Charles Manson’s girlfriend, and Sarah Jane Moore, a bored and absentminded housewife, were easy to categorize as aimlessly rebellious and just plain gullible.
But characters like John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, Leon Czolgosz, who succeeded in killing President William McKinley, and Guiseppe Zangara, who did not manage to shoot President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but murdered the mayor of Chicago instead … those men acted passionately, deliberately, and as a matter of conscience — or at least, desperation. I couldn’t find it in me to dismiss them, nor to ignore their complaints, even though I disagreed with their decisions to resort to violence.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one. After the second performance of “Assassins,” Chambers staged a Q&A session with the actors and the audience. The auditorium still held that post-performance zing of energy, muted a bit by the density of the musical’s subject matter. People were still absorbed in sorting through what it all meant, how they felt about it, where to file the experience in the mental archives.
When Chambers turned the tables on the Q&A guests, asking “What message did you take away from the musical?” a long silence ensued. Every day of freedom is a gift, one person said. We must be sensitive to the needs of those around us, another person offered. Thank you, said a woman, for offering this discussion session, which revealed the depth of research and thought in what could have been a mere shock-value show choice. For me, the Q&A session felt like the best kind of classroom, where students of all ages draw closer to big ideas, complex problems, new notions. Many times, this sort of exploration just won’t happen without conversation partners.
That’s understandable. It’s a downer to eavesdrop on the lives of those people, even goofy Sam Byck, who spends most of the musical in a Santa Claus suit, plotting to murder President Richard Nixon. Nobody enjoys life inside the head of a troubled, would-be killer — not even the killer himself.
And that’s where the musical draws much of its power: it brings us close to “those people,” who, as it turns out, are not so different than us. They feel life’s disappointments keenly, wonder if they’ll ever make it, become frustrated about the difficulties presented by everyday life. At some point, they snap.
What might have happened if someone had stepped in to help? Could some of these assassins been helped, or at least thwarted, if those around them had paid attention and shown love? Such questions are relevant, Chambers said, as she shared the reason for the performance’s dedication to Mary Sherlach, school psychologist for Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Sherlach died in the attack. She was the mother of a college friend of Chambers.
While I love a rollicking good musical, full of “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to,” watching Assassins provided me with an equally valuable, if challenging, experience. I had to hang in there while the various assassins squirmed and plotted and even suffered execution for their acts. I also had to think.
That’s exactly why we have colleges, though: to nudge students and community members out of our comfortable mental habits into a more vibrant way of being. That’s what real learning requires — openness, courage, the willingness to try something incredibly ambitious that might be too much to tackle.
“Assassins” offered all that and more, to the cast, to the audience, to the community. I’ll be turning it over in my mind for some time.