“Assassins” at Chichester Festival Theatre

Simon Jenner in West Sussex
11 June 2023

“Everybody’s got the right to… dream” American. Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 Assassins – opening at the Chichester Festival directed by Polly Findlay – turns the classic American Dream on its head. Taken from an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. with a book by John Weidman it gets revived each time a moderate president presides. Perhaps for a reason.


Danny Mac as John Wilkes Booth.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


Anything opening with: “”Hey, pal, feelin’ blue? / Don’t know what to do? Hey, pal— / I mean you—yeah / C’mere and kill a President'” promises some of the more subversive lyrics ever applied to a state-of-the-nation musical. The threadbare pseudo-egalitarian assertion that ‘anyone can be president’ is replaced with the truer thesis that anybody can kill one.

Of the 13 attempts on US presidents, nine are paraded here – and I do mean paraded with ticker-tape and red-white-blue as if we’re in a reality television universe with sports cheerleaders, yoking the Apollonian idiocy of spectacle with its Dionysian flip side. Not all of them flourish but as we’ll see in the last part of this engrossing work, there’s a touching community spirit among assassins spanning centuries.

A relative failure on its premiere, Assassins quickly established itself as an edgy classic outlier. This production, more than any previous, brings it into Sondheim’s core achievement. For one thing its clarity allows spectacle and storytelling to exist like neon strands together. You’ll not lose your way, unlike, arguably, Sondheim’s subjects.

Musical director Jo Cichonska leads a punchy, detailed, occasionally overwhelming band (orchestrations Michael Starobin, Gregory Clarke’s sound mostly discreet) through Sondheim’s promenades, pummelling bits of Hail to the Chief’ with a gallimaufry of Broadway melded into brass. A troupe of Bystanders and Swing suggest Sondheim alone holds the key to this monstrous parade. There’s no linear plot as such; it’s not plotless either.


Set by Lizzie Clachan.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


The Proprietor (Peter Forbes) introduces his curated assassins, though not in strict chronological order – for good reason. The first though does come first and John Wilkes Booth (Danny Mac) really dominates well beyond his turn in a burning barn – Lizzie Clachan’s set with its sky-blue thrust employs a useful trapdoor down which mini scenes including lit-up gallows vanish back down the cellarage. Richard Howell’s lighting plays beautifully on smoke and stark shadows; most particularly at the end in a wrecked Oval Office which centres upstage throughout.

The red-white-blue colour scheme extends from costume through flags and stage to Akhila Krishnan’s video design with its stand-out visuals on two large monitors stage left and right: a “Breaking News” sequence of presidents being shot with images of location and face. There’s a wicked roulette wheel too whose spins have a marker alight on the next president to undergo hit or (near) miss. It’s exemplary. You know exactly where you are and realize how you mightn’t were it not here.

Balladeer 1 (Liam Tamne, an ardent lyric tenor) has two great numbers and proves ideal here. His carousel, yowsa-inflected establishing song is memorable, as is his elegy on Booth, with its great soaring first line, emphasizing “do” and two-note sustained upswing on “Johnny”.

Why did you do it, Johnny? / Nobody agrees. You who had everything, / What made you bring
/ A nation to its knees? / Some say it was your voice had gone, / Some say it was booze. / Some say you killed a country, John, / Because of bad reviews.


Peter Forbes as the Proprietor.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


Not even theatre folk are exempt. Mac himself takes the Balladeer’s refrain, twists it to the ambivalent: “Everybody’s got the right to be happy… Everybody’s/Free to fail, / No one can be put in jail/ For their dreams.” Not jail but executed for their consequences. Mac’s voice and presence dominates, and as Sondheim deploys him as chief proselytiser for his kind of immortality, he pops up again and again. Tamne’s Balladeer relishes the liberal riposte: “But traitors just get jeers and boos,/ Not visits to their graves,/ While Lincoln, who got mixed reviews,/ Because of you, John, now gets only raves.”

We’re speed-dialled as it were to F.D. Roosevelt’s would-be assassin who killed a policeman and thus faces the chair. As Balladeer 3, Samuel Thomas gleams as Roosevelt’s saviour before turning into Lee Harvey Oswald. Guiseppe Zangara (Luke Brady) enjoys a brief chilling flourish because he is obscurely motivated; Brady appears dark, incisive, unnerving.

But it also brings Charlotte Jaconelli’s great moment (she’s Bystander 3 too) as Canada-exiled, time-poor anarchist Emma Goldman. For two minutes she kindly shakes off Sam Oladeinde’s Labrador-ish Leon Czolgosz with bracing epigrams on collective action which avail him nothing. It’s enough to make a guy go solo.

After Mac’s Booth, the most active assassin Sondheim decides is Charles Guiteau (Harry Hepple), who kills necessarily underachieving President James Garfield (Ivan de Freitas, winningly bemused). It’s a comic contrast. Hepple’s Guiteau is a truly deranged Mad Hatter, a camp peacock. Hepple’s another vocal stand-out, a high-tessitura, rasping tenor, demanding to be French ambassador.


Nick Holder as Samuel Byck.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


There’s further, necessary contrasts. Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley in 1881 but not with the self-righteousness of Sondheim’s Booth and Guiteau, is sung by Oladeinde with a burnished lost innocence, even bafflement, gently and lyrically descanting on his deed.

And some we miss altogether. Who today remembers Sara Jane Moore (Amy Booth-Steel) with her misfiring gun, and her (here) friend Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Carly Mercedes Dyer), swapping their different memories of their idol, Charles Manson? Dyer memorably sings how she doesn’t deserve Manson; and later twines this song with John Hinkley’s singing about Jodie Foster.

Booth-Steel is superb with her scorn of Manson and slapstick as she and Dyer’s Fromme attempt to assassinate – President Gerald Ford? Bob Harms (he also plays also McKinley) obligingly pops up from the orchestra pit and charmingly indulges Booth-Steel as she’s disarmed. Both women were eventually released, but as ideation it’s a chilling reminder after their charm dissolves with audience laughter.


Liam Tamne as Balladeer 1.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


One of the most curious apparitions is Samuel Byck (Nick Holder) who – though it’s not alluded to – tried to kill Nixon by hijacking a 747, killing a pilot as well as policeman and shooting himself. In a battered Santa Claus suit, Holder rambles amongst the audience in a rogue disturbing manner. It’s both powerful and disjunct from the genre: where Sondheim moves nearer a play than a musical – and does so again.

Holder though never sings but is given two rambling verbatim speeches. The first is cruelly comic: Byck’s own transcribed cassette recording sent to Leonard Bernstein, confusedly yoking a random idol with a president he voted for, whose tax breaks disappointed Byck. Holder manages a fine hangdog hopelessness though you might question how high-risk this is. It’s schematically neat to (lyrically) silence one wannabe but replicating Byck to this degree might sag the action were his apparition not so memorably deranged.

We can’t end with the most recent: John Hinckley (Jack Shalloo) didn’t quite succeed with Reagan. His true moment comes though – as we’ve seen – duetting with Dyer’s Fromme in “Unworthy of Your Love”. The psychology here – ideating on Manson, or blameless Foster – is as chilling as the duet is (memorably) schmaltzy.

If this sounds like a zig-zag procession, it is to a degree. But Sondheim and Weidman simply refuse to leave this a jagged musical. A whole Act Three develops as shy Lee Harvey Oswald (Samuel Thomas) really can’t face his destiny. Mac’s Booth might be lead persuader here, but this piece of theatre – which you must see for yourself – is why Findlay’s pacing and Chichester’s staging is so special. Deploying the whole thrust beyond the stage means that the audience (despite themselves) urge the self-stigmatised loser.’

There are individual turns too from Lizzy Connolly (as Balladeer 3 strutting in candy pink), Daniel Bowskill, Jamie Pruden, Reuben McGreevey, Nell Chadwick, Tiffany Clark, Luc Oratis.

Most of what Sondheim has to say is summarized in Tamne’s Balladeer rounding on Booth: “Damn you Johnny,/ You paved the way/ For other madmen/ To make us pay./ Lots of madmen / Have had their say – / But only for a day.“

We can still name Booth, Oswald, for a while longer, Hinkley. We remember the killers only because their victims are outstanding presidential names; the identity of the killers becomes condensed in the flash of a gun. Their victims usually enjoyed a little longer. If some presidents too have faded into that same flash, remembered for little else, their assailants have vanished altogether. Journalist Gary Younge once noted: “We’re often told of the US’s loss of innocence. Funny how they find it again, just in time for the next bad idea.”

Assassins has at least three great numbers, its own sour lyric core. The piece is less emotionally rich than Follies and not braided with the dark of Into the Woods. Despite the violence depicted, it does not quite have the bloodthirsty nature of Sweeney Todd or the unabashed lyricism of the best of Company and Sunday in the Park with George. We just haven’t got used to it yet.

This production – along with its pin-point clarity, might be an ideal introduction to Assassins were it not definitive anyway, establishing it as a classic with an all-too-brief run, ending 24 June. More unpredictable Sondheim from this source would be wonderful.