Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday Dance Party: Everybody's Got The Right

There was no Friday Dance Party last week.  Friday was not the day for dancing. Or a party. 

All weekend, in the midst of joyously performing A Midsummer Night's Dream (and telling ourselves we were doing a good deed by lifting spirits), I only occasionally stopped by Facebook.  Amidst the outpouring of emotion regarding the school massacre was the expected blip from the usual suspects, those who regard any restriction of gun ownership to be a violation of their constitutional rights.  Sometimes my brain hurts from this stuff.  When the White House spokesman, of all people, proclaimed that this was "not the time to debate gun control," I thought my ears would start bleeding.  When exactly IS the best time to debate gun control? 
The current fiscal cliff stalemate proves that our legislators  cannot accomplish anything unless in crisis mode (actually, they are YOUR legislators, since, as a citizen of DC, MY legislator does not get to vote in all this stuff is YOUR fault).  I would call last weekend's slaughter evidence of a crisis, and encourage action.

Wow, I didn't mean to get into all that, but you can now see how impossible it would have been to create a Dance Party last Friday.  But I've been feeling bad that I skipped a week, the only time that has happened in over four years of Dance Party silliness, so I shall make up for the loss with a special Monday edition.

Believe it or not, there is actually a piece of musical theatre out there which deals with violence in America.  That theme alone is reason enough that the show is not widely appreciated, and its history is one of lousy timing and disconcerting content.  The show is Assassins, one of Stephen Sondheim's most controversial works. 
In 2006, Signature Theatre in DC, renowned for reexamining Sondheim's flops, presented Assassins. As if the piece itself wasn't unsettling enough, this staging placed the actors in theatre seats facing the audience.  There was no escape.
A lot of Sondheim's shows have had, shall we say, "checkered" histories, and Assassins may be at the head of a list which would probably also contain Passion, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, and Road Show.  All these shows had limited appeal in their initial runs, and divided audiences into lovers and haters (I've heard that, during the Broadway run of Passion, there was an actual fistfight in the audience between someone who hated the show and someone who was defending it!).

My favorite Cassidy, Patrick, co-starred in the
original, with Victor Garber.

But back to Assassins, which made its debut Off-Broadway in 1990, with a cast which included Victor Garber, Patrick Cassidy, Terrance Mann, and Debra Monk.  It's no surprise that the show sold out its limited run of only 73 performances, as everybody clamored to see Sondheim's first show since the well-regarded Into the Woods.  The surprise here was the fact that the show did not make its anticipated move to Broadway (the NY Times pan had a lot to do with that). 
In the 2004 revival, Neil Patrick Harris's
performance as Lee Harvey Oswald was
creepily enhanced by his t-shirt, upon
which the Zapruder home movie of JFK's
assassination flickered.

Years later, Roundabout Theatre's plan to finally produce the show on Broadway was derailed by the September 11 attacks;  they rightly surmised that nobody wanted to see a show which humanized the people who, throughout history, attempted and/or succeeded in murdering American presidents.  Yes, that's what Assassins is about.  In a carnival setting, the show gives voice to the most heinous (and occasionally hilarious) villains in American history.  John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald tell their stories (and argue with each other), while John Hinkley sings a love song to Jodie Foster before shooting Reagan.  The lesser known assassins of presidents Garfield and McKinley are also featured, as well as those loony ladies who each tried to kill Gerald Ford, Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore.
Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore meet on a park bench.  Fromme was a member of Charles Manson's "family," and oddly, Moore went to high school with him. Individually, they both attempted to shoot Gerald Ford, and they have both currently been released on parole.
The connecting thread of all their stories seems to be a desire to be noticed.  But there is another major character in Assassins: the gun.  The show opens with The Balladeer, who acts as our narrator, handing out guns to all the assassins;  there is even a ballad ABOUT the gun.  As you can imagine, the piece is dark and unsettling;  it's no surprise that Assassins is not considered a classic. 
The 2004 Broadway production won the Tony, as did Michael Cerveris as Booth. You can also spot previous Tony winner Denis O'Hare, as well as comic Mario Cantone in the Santa suit.  My man Neil Patrick Harris played the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. The cast reunited this month for a concert staging in New York.  The casual way in which the cast handles their guns is truly disturbing, and is indicative of the American attitude toward weaponry and violence.
This week's Dance Party (or rather, last week's, appearing several days late) features the clip presented on the Tony awards when the revival finally made it to Broadway in 2004.  The yucky theme of the show has always doomed Assassins, and though the revival won five Tonys, it was not a hit.  It probably never will be, and after last week's gun violence, I pity any high school or college theatre department which was presenting the show as its Christmas musical.  This clip certainly illustrates the difficulty of producing Assassins for a wide audience, and the final image, which is the last moment of the show, has traumatic significance this week.