Excuse me, Mr. President

The AACI brings Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’ to Jerusalem

HOW TO make a comedy about presidential assassins: (at left) Howard Metz as Sam Byck; Miriam Metzinger (left) as Sara Jane Moore and Rachel Raanan as Squeaky Fromme (photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
HOW TO make a comedy about presidential assassins: (at left) Howard Metz as Sam Byck; Miriam Metzinger (left) as Sara Jane Moore and Rachel Raanan as Squeaky Fromme
(photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
J-Town Playhouse never fails to deliver, and this time is bringing the musical Assassins to Jerusalem’s AACI theater. Originally created by eight-time Tony Award winner Stephen Sondheim, Assassins centers around the assassination of the president. But it is more a comedic exploration of the American psyche.
The show opened on February 15 and runs for eight performances. Director Layla Schwartz sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the show’s timeliness, how to make a comedy about presidential assassins, and the take-home message.
How did it come about that you’re directing ‘Assassins’?
This is the first show that I’ve actually chosen to direct. All the other ones were offered to me. I’ve always loved Sondheim’s work. I grew up listening to his soundtracks, especially Into the Woods. Some I knew by heart.
I discovered Assassins later in life and it’s one of my favorite for relevance. Then when [Donald] Trump became a serious candidate for president, I thought, okay, now it’s more relevant, because of why he was elected. The people who voted for him felt disenfranchised and that they were promised the American dream but didn’t get it. They wondered why their lives were not as good as they were told they would be.
There is something particular to the American character about dreaming big and then being disappointed when you don’t get it. We’ve seen this manifest itself with people who tried to assassinate presidents over the years.
The show, ‘Assassins,’ centers around a carnival game about assassinating the president?
Yeah, there is a sign that reads, “Hit the pres, win a prize.” The carnival barker, in the opening number, he entices all the assassins and attempted assassins to come shoot the president and get their prize. That’s the theme of the show and it sets the tone, which is funny. Most people don’t think, if I shoot the president I’ll win something. These would-be assassins have extraordinary power with a gun. There has been no notable assassination attempt in history without guns.
That’s another theme, that there is something very powerful and sexy about guns. That you can take down the most powerful person in the country with a gun.
The characters of the assassins are real historical figures?
They are assassins from different time periods in American history; from the 1860s up until the 1980s. They all had the same American dream and the same crazy idea, which creates a continuum. The show jumps around chronologically. Every scene is a little vignette, song, or monologue that features one or more of the assassins. Sometimes they interact with each other. There is a very funny scene with Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to kill Gerald Ford, and Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield. They have nothing to do with each other historically, but in the play they meet.
It gives these people a voice, instead of writing them off a crazy and freaks. You really hear who they were as people. They didn’t start life out deranged for the most part, except for Guiteau, who in some scenes is very happy and in others is very menacing. One character is Guiseppe Zangara, who attempted to shoot Roosevelt but ended up killing the mayor of Chicago. There is a Sousa march, which is upbeat, where the crowd talks to the press about how they saved the president’s life unknowingly by pushing Zangara to the back of the crowd.
Then Zangara’s song is a tarantella, where he tells us about how he never got to go to school and worked in a ditch when he was a child. Then he moved to America and had all these stomach problems, which he thought were because of the unfairness of the world. So he decided to kill a very rich and powerful man to make his point. Contrasting music styles are used really well to show the time period and play with the mood.
It sounds like this would not be an easy production to direct. There is a lot going on.
There is definitely a lot going on. I’ve really enjoyed directing it and I find it easy to direct the actors in terms of trying to convey what is important to them. What I find most challenging are the technical aspects. We have props, costumes from many different time periods, and we also have slides which will help tell the story and set the scenes. Also there are a lot of sound cues.
How have rehearsals been with the cast?
It’s been a lot of fun. What’s funny is that even the scenes that seem like they would be the most dramatic and heavy have still been fun. They’re written in a way that’s very funny. There is a scene toward the end where John Wilkes Booth appears to Lee Harvey Oswald, and you see Oswald as a suicidal man who has given up. So Booth convinces him to kill Kennedy.
It’s very funny, but I think people have to come see it to believe it. It’s been a great process for me to get the actors where they need to be. I have some really young actors and some very experienced ones. We’ve taken the time to find the physicality of each character and to find their voice. What drives them? You come to love these characters, even though they did horrific things. You feel badly for them. You empathize with them as people, not with what they did.
The balladeer also serves as someone the audience can relate to; he sings to the assassins and tries to reason with them. He sticks up for American optimism in lines like, “The mailman won the lottery!”
What do you hope the audience will take away?
I hope first of all that they’ll be entertained. The music is really beautiful and the lyrics are rich; it’s a great evening at the theater. But also that throughout history, there are certain ideas that are very strong, and they have consequences. It’s up to us how we interpret these ideas and what we do with them. I believe that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a people affect the next generation.
Purchase tickets for Assassins at www.aaci.org.il or (02) 566-1181.