Aiming high, with a gun and a song

“Assassins” gives some insight into the insanity and personality of a president-killer.

Don M. Burrows

In the United States, you can make your dreams come true. Even if those dreams involve killing the president.

The University’s Xperimental Theatre brings that bombshell to campus with Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” a musical that explores nine people who killed ” or tried to kill ” the president.

The atypical production starts with John Wilkes Booth and continues through John Hinckley Jr., highlighting the lesser-known and wannabe assassins in between. The play is part history lesson and part literary license, as Sondheim gives the killers various motivations, some historical and some not. But it is that compulsion director Matt McNabb chose to explore.

“The show tries to humanize these people,” McNabb said. “The goal of the show is to let the audience identify themselves with these political monsters. It doesn’t justify them, but it doesn’t dwell upon them either.”

The musical is in many ways a critique of the so-called American dream, standards of economic success and what it means to in fact be an American. Some of the assassins are working toward the American dream because they believe anyone can make a difference, McNabb said.

“Like John Wilkes Booth for example: He thinks he’s saving the country,” McNabb said. “He thinks this will be a better place.”

The play was first produced in 1990, and some have postured that Sondheim might have been responding to the first Gulf War, McNabb said. The production spent only a few months off Broadway before exiting the stage. While the current political climate makes some of the commentary in the musical relevant, McNabb said, he was a fan of the production long before the current Iraq war began.

“It definitely fuels the fire of the passion I have for the play,” he said of current events. But his love for the piece comes more from its nontraditional flair. Instead of using an overarching narrative, the play offers vignettes of each assassin. McNabb dubs it “one of the least typical musicals ever made.”

Brant Miller, who plays Sam Byck, the would-be assassin of Richard Nixon, said the play allowed him to learn about presidential history, something he thinks the audience will do as well.

“Most of these characters we don’t know much about, and most people don’t know they existed,” he said.

McNabb said he excised a finale song at the end of Sondheim’s play ” a patriotic number that seems intended to mitigate the otherwise dark nature of the play.

“It tries to appease people,” he said.