Tony Award-winning “Assassins” takes center stage at Saddleback

John Wilkes Booth and the proprietor take stage as they perform a scene from "Assassins" (Colin Reef/Lariat)

John Wilkes Booth and the proprietor take stage as they perform a scene from “Assassins” (Colin Reef/Lariat)

The Department of Theatre Arts at Saddleback College presents “Assassins,” on Dec. 1st-10th in the Studio Theatre. A book by John Weidman, from an idea by Charles Gilbert Junior and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Multiple Tony Award-winning theatrical tour-de-force, “Assassins” combines Sondheim’s signature blend of intelligently stunning lyrics and beautiful music with a panoramic story of our nation’s culture of celebrity and the violent means some will use to obtain it, embodied by America’s four successful and five would-be presidential assassins. Bold, original, disturbing and alarmingly funny, “Assassins” is perhaps the most controversial musical ever written.

“Stephen Sondheim’s score explores the country’s would-be presidential assassins motivations, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, but also, in its pungent use of American history, burrows deep into the national character that bred them,” said Edwin McCormick who plays the proprietor gun salesman who provides the characters with their weapons at the beginning of the show.

Portrayed as pathetic, sometimes comically deluded misfits on their own, they become the symbol of a much larger problem in our country. Each of the assassins feels that he or she has been promised the American dream in some way or another. They believe that if one works hard enough, they can succeed and become rich and famous. But this isn’t always possible, and it hasn’t been for these characters.

“Assassins” is not an attempt to pardon or make light of the men and women who made these assassination attempts,” Director Mark McQuown said. “It tells their stories so that the audience might see the other aspects of their lives and surroundings – the injustices, disillusionments, and personal hardships that led each of them to attempt an assassination of a U.S. President, looking to exact some kind of revenge for perceived wrongs committed against them or against our country.”

In a song toward the end of the show, the narrator character, who acts as a voice of reason, converses with the assassins. He answers their desperate pleas with dialogue that states that the nation feels foolish against the reality of their lonely lives.

But the assassins overwhelm his hopeful narrative with another melody. It becomes a dark, twisted version of a patriotic ballad. They become the singers of their own national anthem. An anthem for the losers, the downtrodden, and the angry people who feel they have been denied the prize they were promised.

As we watch them, we begin to become aware that these outsiders have found a terrifying meaning in the American dream. The meaning they choose to believe is that when the riches and success don’t come to fruition, violence is the only thing that will make them famous.

In the final scene, John Wilkes Booth quotes “Death of a Salesman,” another play about North American disillusionment, when he says to Lee Harvey Oswald that “attention must be paid” to the lost, the struggling, and the disenfranchised.

“The only way that these characters achieve that attention is by committing an unthinkable act that will ensure they are remembered. Hated in the eyes of the American people, but remembered,” McCormick said.

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