They gather in the unnamed bar, the assassins, mulling their versions of a dream that is uniquely American in nature.
Theoretically, everyone in this great land has the opportunity to grow up to be president. Everyone also has the opportunity to grow up and kill the president.
And John Wilkes Booth is Mephistopheles sitting at the corner table, listening to every conversation and slipping into their heads.
“Do it,” he says.
See how it makes you feel.
Honor a single gun’s power to change the world.
“That’s a powerful line,” Keith Dixon said.
A powerful thought, too. How many times has a single gun’s power changed not only history in the United States but in the world? Nine.
Yes, nine assassins have tried to kill presidents in the country’s short history. Some succeeded; others didn’t. But each time, they changed history in a single moment, maybe realizing some version of their American dream.
“This is a musical that looks at the American dream through America’s assassins’ eyes,” Dixon said.
He’s Baton Rouge Little Theater’s artistic director and director of its special engagement production of Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, Assassins. The show opens Friday, Aug. 24, on the theater’s main stage.
“This musical looks at a lot of questions,” Dixon said. “Does everybody in America have a right to be happy? There’s a difference between the right to be happy and the right to pursue happiness. Does everybody have a right to pursue happiness?”
The Declaration of Independence, after all, does say that Americans are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, “That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But what if a presidential assassin is interpreting this idea to fit his dream? Or hers?
“The story plays on the notion that if you’re not happy, it’s someone else’s fault,” Dixon said. “We have nine different assassins with nine different reasons for what they’ve done.”
There’s that number again, nine. The roster is made up of Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln; Booth’s accomplice David Herold; Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley; Giuseppe Zangara, attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt; Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President John F. Kennedy; Samuel Byck, attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon; John Hinckley, attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford; and Sara Jane Moore, attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford.
Assassins debuted on Dec. 18, 1990, in the off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and John Weidman wrote the book based on an idea by Charles Gilbert.
Its Broadway debut was scheduled for 2001 in the Roundabout Theatre but was postponed after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2011. Assassins finally opened on April 22, 2004, in Broadway’s Studio 54.
“We thought it was appropriate to do it this year,” Dixon said. “It’s a presidential election year, but this isn’t really about the assassinations of presidents but about what we see as the American dream and the myth of the American dream.”
Dixon is right. Presidential elections always bring about campaigns touting the American dream with both sides saying their ideas are better. This story offers a different idea.
“You know, there have been assassins of leaders throughout history,” Dixon said. “They’ve been assassinated for political reasons or coups. But assassins here are a purely American phenomenon, because during a 100-year period, there have been nine assassination attempts with none of those motivations behind them. The assassinations here are personal.”
And it all begins with John Wilkes Booth. Josh Dowies plays Lincoln’s killer in this production, and he’s done his homework.
“He originally planned to kidnap Lincoln,” Dowies said. “He blamed Lincoln for the war and all of the lives that were lost. He had been talking to landowners, mapping out a route, but he was planning on transporting the president on this route. He wasn’t planning for it to be an escape route.”
Booth wrote about this in his diary while he was on the run. The story refers to the diary, but Dowies’ research goes deeper, even deeper than Booth’s story in the play.
“He was writing letters to his conspirators,” Dowies said. “Back then, your co-conspirator couldn’t testify against you.”
“John Wilkes Booth is Mephistopheles in the story,” Dixon said. “He’s the godfather — the pioneer.”
And Ernest Ourso is the Balladeer, a narrator of sorts who keeps the show on track. The Balladeer makes jokes, makes poignant points and asks questions that lead audience members to think about what has happened.
“I think that’s my job,” Ourso said. “I think I’m there to make the audience think. It might appear to be one way, but then I’ll ask a question that changes it.”
Now, let it be known now that this production isn’t a family show.
“It’s rated R,” Dixon said.
Guns will be fired, and they will be loud, but audience members shouldn’t worry. The guns are modified for theater and will shoot blanks.
“The show is only an hour and a half,” Dixon said. “And there will be 15 minute stretches when there isn’t gunfire. But there will be shooting.”
There also will be lots of music.
“It’s really a musical revue,” Dixon said. “It’s a black comedy. And it’s definitely an appropriate production for us to stage this year.”
Because all Americans have a dream, but is pursuit of some dreams a right?
- CAST: Lance Parker, Leon Czolgosz; Morgan Bartholick, John Hinkley; Terry Byars, Charles Guiteau; Richard Williams, Giuseppe Zangara; Johnny Worsham, Samuel Byck; Lily McGill, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme; Jennifer Johnson, Sara Jane Moore; Jason Dowies, John Wilkes Booth; Ernest Ourso, Balladeer; Ronald Coats, Lee Harvey Oswald; Kevin Harger, The Proprietor; T.J. Thigpen, David Herold; Jamie Leonard, Emma Goldman; Ensemble: Erin Woolworth, Jamie Leonard, Elizabeth Corley, Michael Ruffin, Kevin Harger, T.J. Thigpen.
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Keith Dixon, director; Terry Bowman, musical director.