Preview: Assassins

Musical director Reza Jacobs hopes to score with Sondheim satire

ASSASSINS by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim, directed by Adam Brazier. Presented by BirdLand/Talk Is Free at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 4) and runs to February 20, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $33. See listing.

Reza Jacobs, musical director of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, feels a little like a high-school band conductor these days. Not only does he lead a four-piece orchestra during the show, but all 13 actors play instruments as well.[rssbreak]

And what actors.

The cast includes some of our best musical theatre performers, including Trish Lindstrom, Martin Julien, Mike Ross, Eliza-Jane Scott and Steve Ross, and others you don’t associate with the genre, like Graham Abbey and Kate Hewlett.

“This production has attracted actors who haven’t performed in musicals before,” says Jacobs. “They’ve been drawn to it because of its words and meaty roles.”

Assassins isn’t your typical musical. It’s a comedy, yet most of its characters are the people who have, successfully or not, attempted to kill various presidents of the United States.

The roster includes the well-known John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald as well as lesser lights Leon Czolgosz (shot William McKinley) and Charles Guiteau (shot James Garfield). Among the would-be hit men and hit women are John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme.

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Weidman and Sondheim set the action, sardonically, in a carnival shooting gallery, where everyone has a chance to pop a president and win a prize.

“Adam [Brazier, the director] takes it a step further,” adds Jacobs, also a composer whose most recent work includes sound design for The Madonna Painter and musical direction for two Shaw Festival productions.

“Here, the performers are a band of travelling carnies presenting a tribute to America, albeit a very dirty tribute. We’re not the A-class carnies, not even the B-class, but somewhere around the C.”

The book’s incisive send-ups are well matched by Sondheim’s satiric score, drawing from a century of American musical styles: ballads, spirituals, barbershop quartets and 70s pop tunes.

Download associated audio clip.

“But what’s great about Sondheim is that he can tell stories through his songs, and in doing so combines his own distinctive sound with the period from which he draws. I don’t know another composer who can so clearly project his own voice through the prism of another musical style.”

Jacobs has reduced and distilled Michael Starobin’s original Broadway orchestrations of the show. His goal as musical director was to deal with his cast’s various skill levels some hadn’t played an instrument since high school.

“Most importantly, I wanted there to be a reason that someone played an instrument. It’s not just for the music I want each instrument to be part of a character’s personality.”

Download associated audio clip.

And what’s the draw for Canadians to such an American musical?

“So much of what happens down there affects us, either dragging us along or prompting us to harden our position in opposition to what goes on in the States,” says Jacobs.

“Just as importantly, there’s a universal quality in a play that talks about the trust we put in our leaders and the promises they sometimes break.”

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