The most recent issue of the Sondheim Review has something pretty exciting for the family Chapin – a big old piece written by none other than yours truly and my father, Ted Chapin. Now you’re probably saying, “well of COURSE, Anika, we already know this because we subscribe/buy the Sondheim Review regularly, because why would we not want to fill our lives with even more Sondheimian joy?” to which I say, good for you, as well you should. But I’ve included it here for those of you who haven’t yet bought your copy (it’s the one with the stars of CSC’s Passion on the cover, because APPARENTLY Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico locked in a passionate embrace is more likely to sell magazines than two squinty-eyed Chapins. WHATEVER.)
The piece is an account of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s December reunion concert of their 2004 production of Assassins. As you will read, the show is beloved by both Dad and myself, and it was great fun both diving into one of my favorite productions and getting to share it with my dad. Although it’s probably clear which voice is which if you’re a regular reader of my blog, I’ve put Dad’s stuff in italics, for clarity and so that everything he says automatically sounds more dramatic.
Anika Chapin: For about six months, I have had an entry in my calendar for December 3 saying simply “best night ever.” That might sound a bit overwrought (I tend to get a little effusive in the company of my own calendar), but as soon as I heard that a reunion concert of Assassins was happening, I knew I had to be there.
Ted Chapin: My story with ASSASSINS begins when I ran the Musical Theater Lab in the late 1970’s. Stuart Ostrow created a program with the Dramatists Guild, working closely with his small board of directors that included Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim. The idea was for new musicals to be submitted, and then they would be examined and processed through a series of work sessions with established musical theater artists. It never happened, for reasons I don’t remember, but one of the submissions was ASSASSINS by Charles Gilbert. Sondheim expressed interest in the title, and so I sent the material over to his Turtle Bay house.
Anika: To put it simply, Assassins is important to me. I have been a musical theater fan almost all of my life, brought to my first musical by my father, a lifer himself, when I was six months old (I am told I was mesmerized by the lights going down, but had some book problems with act two.) I was the kind of kid who listened to Les Miserables on the way to school and Into the Woods on the way home, and who still remembers some of the facts of American history by mentally reviewing the numbers in 1776. But when I first heard Assassins, I was stunned.
Ted: I was invited to a reading at Playwrights Horizons – there were two done in one day, and I went to the second. I was knocked out by what I heard – audacious, bold, dark, yet tuneful. And quite stunning. When the final scene took place literally in the Texas School Book Depository building with Lee Harvey Oswald being visited by the assassins and would-be assassins from the past, my jaw dropped. Being old enough to have remembered that day in Dallas, I couldn’t believe they were actually creating a scene in which Oswald would be egged on to kill Kennedy in order for him, a nobody, to be remembered. Wow, I thought. This is pretty amazing. Although I got a quick sense of just how controversial the show would end up being when I checked in with my father Schuyler Chapin who had been at the earlier reading. As one of the very few fans of the presidency of Warren G. Harding, he had a hard time with the subject matter, although he was and remained a huge Sondheim fan. When he ran the Metropolitan Opera, he tried to convince Sondheim to write an opera.
Anika: This was something different from anything I had encountered before: theater that broke the rules I knew to ask questions that reached into the dark underbelly of my country and culture. I loved that the songs each reflected the era of their respective subjects and I adored that the show wasn’t afraid to humanize the assassins, to make them characters instead of simple monsters. And the last scene in the John Weidman book accomplished something I had never experienced in theater before, and have only rarely experienced since. Over the course of a single scene I was made to understand that which I thought I could never understand: exactly why Lee Harvey Oswald might commit his atrocious act. It was powerful, and it was terrifying, and it is not an exaggeration to say that Assassins taught me what theater, and specifically musical theater, could do. It’s very possible that the roots of my current life as a Dramaturg began in the many long hours I spent listening and re-listening to the cast album, noticing new musical quotations or lines in the final scene that I hadn’t before, or writing essays in my head about the relationship between the audience and the narrator figure in Sondheim’s musicals (doesn’t everyone write mental essays about Sondheim shows on long subway commutes?)
Ted: On the evening I was schedule to see the full Playwrights Horizons production in 1991, I was invited to a cocktail party in an apartment across from River House, as far East as you can get on 52nd Street. Attending the party was Jacqueline Onassis.I asked someone to introduce me to her. She was ever gracious, as we spoke about children and schools in New York, and how my boss Dorothy Rodgers had worked with Caroline’s husband Edwin Schlossberg. It was only as I left the party that I realized how peculiar it was that I would leave that gathering and venture across town to see ASSASSINS. The audience I saw that production with didn’t seem to love the show – I am not sure why, but somehow they weren’t willing to embrace it.
Anika: So as you might imagine, when the Roundabout production happened in 2004, I was ecstatic – finally I would get a chance to see the show I had loved and imagined for so long, brought to life by a group of actors that was almost an embarrassment of riches. Unfortunately, I was also in New Zealand on a study abroad semester that was scheduled to end after the run of the show. So, in the words of Dot, I did what I had to do… I cut my study abroad short and flew back to catch the show (sorry, Vassar!)
Ted: Part of what made the 2004 Roundabout production so remarkable, was that this time, thirteen years later, audiences accepted the show with all its dark underbelly and comic insanities. Somehow the production the Roundabout gave the show fit in a way that the original production hadn’t. (I didn’t much like the Sam Mendes production at the Donmar Warehouse in London which was the first show of his tenure there.)
Anika: It was worth it. Although I had loved the show I imagined in my head through myriad listenings, seeing the production on stage was far better; the cast made the characters alive and heartbreaking, and the show was funnier, and a little more surreal, then I had thought. Some elements, when staged, surprised me: the Balladeer and the Proprietor felt much more like counterparts, one advocating for hope and the other urging vengeance for the failure of the American dream. Although I knew the last scene so well I could probably have recited it along with the actors, I was freshly swayed by the terrifying reality that to be hated and remembered is still being remembered, and freshly devastated when it reached its conclusion. Since Joe Mantello’s production made the Balladeer become Lee Harvey Oswald, the argument stung even more; the voice of hope and reason had finally been convinced. And ‘Something Just Broke’, which I had never heard before, left me weeping. Experiencing the pain of a country mourning together was a reminder of what horrors these characters, whom I had come to know and love over the course of the evening, had committed.
Ted: Which brings us to December 3, 2012. It had been eight years since the original Roundabout production. Usually at the one-night-only reunion concert events – which have now become almost a genre – it’s interesting to see actors who have soft-pedaled their careers in the interim, or dropped out entirely, or those whose physicality has changed. Sometimes the evening becomes a kind of spiritual homecoming. This time it was extraordinary that everyone, with the exception of Eamon Foley who was 8 in 2004, looked, sounded, and acted like 2004 was yesterday. How great it was to see Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Cerveris, Becky Ann Baker, James Barbour, Mario Cantone, Alexander Gemignani, Marc Kudisch, Jeffrey Kuhn, Dennis O’Hare – and Anne Nathan, Merwin Foard, etc. The audience cheered as the cast came on, all except Harris, whose later entrance was not only greeted with another round of applause, but was entirely artistically appropriate for the character of the Balladeer.
Anika: I discovered all those things anew in the reunion concert. Once again the show I thought I knew so well surprised me, including with how well it takes to a minimalist concert staging. The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s music hall set, borrowed for the evening, was surprisingly effective; the side balconies gave the sense that we might be seeing the whole show at Ford’s theater, a happy (if slightly morbid) bit of kismet. Marc Kudisch, back as the Proprietor, and Neil Patrick Harris, as the Balladeer, sat at opposite ends of the stage, further underlining their status as opposing forces. And the cast, reunited almost in full (Annaleigh Ashford took over from Mary Catherine Garrison as Squeaky Fromme, effortlessly and hilariously) looked even more like a group lined up in their contemporary black outfits, each with a hint of their character; they were individuals from different times and places who nonetheless belong together, linked forever by their frightening, terrible, desperate, fascinating acts. But mostly, I was reminded just how powerful and important Assassins is. I can think of no other work that examines with such bold curiosity the question of what happens when the great promise of the American Dream sours. Sondheim’s work often explores the idea of what happens after dreams do or do not come true (Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are the primary examples, but each with a very different form of dream), but Assassins asks a question that feels most urgent for us to answer: if our culture has become one in which fleeting fame or the pain of many feels like equal payment for an individual’s failed dreams, what can we expect but more of the same?
Ted: The evening was a success on many levels, starting with the $850,000 that the theater raised for its musical theater program in the one night only event. (The chairman of the board announced that astonishing news before the show began). That meant our $500 tickets provided us with seats in the last row of the orchestra, and a chit for a sippy cup of white wine before the festivities began. How great that Sondheim’s work has become so well supported, both by fans and by his stalwart financial supporters, who were well represented: Mary Jo and Ted Shen were the chairs, and Perry and Marty Granoff were listed as well.
Anika: The concert on December 3 might have been a reunion, but it was also a reminder that this material is as fresh today as it was eight, or even 23, years ago. Sitting in the audience listening to this stellar cast bring Assassins to life again, I realized that I have been listening to the show for almost twenty years now, which is two thirds of my life so far. I plan on continuing to listen to it. I suspect I will be discovering new details of the book and the score 20 years from now, and 20 years from then. And if future generations of Chapins happen to love the show as much as my father and I do, I would be thrilled. There might be some dark family sing-alongs in the future.