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On Directing Assassins
by June Abernathy

While Assassins might seem like an attractive piece for a theatre to consider at first glance - the Sondheim name, minimal scenery, smallish cast, gripping subject matter - it is much more of an undertaking than it would first appear.

To begin with, you have the outraged chorus of everyone from the board to the neighbors - "A MUSICAL? About Assassins? I just can't imagine what kind of musical numbers you could do. Aren't you trivializing the subject? Aren't you glorifying the Assassins?" Etc. etc. etc. One would think that musicals dealing with serious subject matter had never appeared before. Everything from West Side Story to Cabaret to Les Miserables and Miss Saigon completely forgotten. Or that Sondheim was known for fluff - If you had seen Sweeny Todd, or Pacific Overatures, or even Anyone Can Whistle, you would know that he could write a musical about Assassins without being either trivial or sentimental. Nonetheless, that first knee-jerk reaction from the uninitiated is the first hurdle - both to getting the show choice approved and to getting an audience in the seats.

Once you begin casting, you realize that not only is the cast larger than you probably thought, but you are faced with casting 9 principals, with strong vocal demands and specific physical types. (That is there for the Proprietor - an ensemble member who must nonetheless carry off the opening number). In a typical large musical, you would only be faced with casting 2 or 3 leads and another 2 or 3 seconds - and your chorus wouldn't usually need to be quite as versatile and skilled as this one does. One of the ensemble has to play a convincing Emma Goldman. Another, a panicked David Herold. Not simple. To add to the casting dilemma, the show has mostly men, which in many areas are much more difficult to come by. Everyone in the audience knows what Booth, Oswald, Fromme, and Hinckley should look like. Add to that Booth's huge vocal range, or the fact that Hinckley really needs to play the guitar, and you begin to see the difficulty. The Balladeer has to sing quite high, and ideally play a banjo and maybe a guitar. He also needs to be charming enough for the audience to identify with. Zangara has to be quite short, do a monologue in Italian, and sing a tenor A above the staff. He should also be able to go from simplistic immigrant befuddlement to palpable dangerous hostility in the blink of an eye. Find that on the corner. Moore has to sing a respectable range, master the tricky rhythms of the "Gun Song", and have tremendous comic timing while still convincingly playing a confused middle aged housewife with a dangerous streak. There are no easy roles in this show.

That "simple set" may not be so simple once you get into it. Are you using slides, as they did in the original? What kinds of images, from what sources? How literal? Setting the scene, or commenting on it? Both? Front or rear projection? But what about crossover, what about noise, where does the screen (screens?) go? How literal is the gallows? Does it lose something without real stairs? What about Byck's car? Steering wheel or no steering wheel? Who shifts the scenery? The ensemble? A crew? Do you have room? Do you have darkness? Where is the orchestra? How much room will they take up? Can the conductor see the singers, or vice versa? How much power will they need?

The show is prop hell, no doubt about it. The hand props are what place each scene and each Assassin in time and place. The guns come to mind immediately, of course. Some are described in the script. Most have to fire, although some can get away without it. How historically accurate do you have to/want to be? Hinckley is supposed to fire more than 6 times in succession - an automatic instead of a short barrelled .22? Can you get blanks for an automatic? A .22 starter pistol fires 8 shots. Is that enough? Moore used a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver - yet, in the course of the play, she has to whip it in and out of her purse about a thousand times, and she fires her gun more than any other character - is a cannon like a standard S&W really a good idea? She makes reference to the caliber in the gun song, but wouldn't a snub nose police .38 work just as well? If you are historically accurate, you need at least 6 different kinds of ammunition. (7, if you pad your arsenal with starter pistols). What would that do to your budget? How big is your theatre? Can you fire Oswald's rifle, or Squeaky's .45, or even Moore's .38 without deafening the assembled? Half load, quarter load, no load blanks . . . How close are you to the audience? Is it safe to fire even a blank pistol that close?

Aside from the guns, you have period newspapers, a 1975 KFC chicken bucket, a period crutch, a period camera with working flash, a breakaway 1981 coke bottle, a realistic electric chair, edible food, a realistic stuffed dog, tons of money and a pocketwatch or two. A difficult prop show. Are you close enough to the audience for them to be able to see what someone's period newpaper says? To read Emma Goldman's pamphlet?

Costumes are similarly difficult. They certainly set the time and help define the character. Byck's Santa suit, for instance, comes from his picketing the White House on Christmas Eve of 1974, in the Santa suit with the sign described in the script. Most have practical considerations as well. Booth should have spurs, for instance. One popular theory is that he caught his spur in the bunting around the president's box when he jumped, and that is why he fell and broke his leg. How to quick change him from the opening to the barn and back? Underdress the bandaged leg and distressed shirt? Where does he pocket his gun when his coat is off? Can he sit with it in a pants pocket? If so, can he pull it from the pocket while sitting? Where does Squeaky keep her gun? In reality, she wore a leg holster. Fun look, but is it practical with a .45? Can she get it out of a robe pocket quickly to try to shoot Ford? Does she have a waistband under the robe to tuck it in? How fast does Emma Goldman need to be able to get in and out of her costume? Does she need help? What about the guy playing David Herold, or Ford?

These are just some of the practical considerations that need to be discussed and decided on early in the process. The artistic considerations await!


One of the single biggest questions - what to do with the Balladeer. Is he supposed to be there to reflect the audience point of view (or what we hope will be their point of view), to narrate, or to represent shallow, sound byte , TV America, the land where all questions can be suitably resolved in a half hour less commercials? I think he is there for the audience to identify with, one way or another. Some productions have made more of the Proprietor, balancing him against the Balladeer as tempter and enabler. This is difficult to do within the confines of the script - using him as the bartender, or the photographer in JFK, or having him bring Oswald's wrapped rifle to the stage. An interesting concept. Although this was not done in NYC or London, I think I would use an older guy for the Balladeer, with some gray in the hair, some lines in the face - someone who looked like he had been around long enough, and lived through enough, to have the right to comment on these people. Not elderly, but seasoned - still keeping the "folk singer" idea of the original production. Finding that look in a guy who can sing squeaky tenor and play a banjo may be an impossibility, of course. You could do without the banjo, (Patrick Cassidy didn't play on Broadway) and just have it played from the pit, but it is a powerful image to sacrifice.

One of the things that makes the show great is that most Americans prefer to think of the Assassins as a collection of crazed nutballs, and the show forces you to consider things from their perspective, which often means coming to the realization that some of them had a point. It also means coming to the realization that they are not all the same - that their motives vary considerably. It is important to keep that in mind when casting and directing the show. While voices are important, and this is a typically difficult Sondheim score, complete with tricky rythms and impossible tessituras, the book is strong, and the acting is vitally important. Given the choice, go with actors who sing rather than singers who act.

As the Assassins go, it is tempting to take just the obvious choices for each character. Booth is undeniably charming, Moore is undeniably funny, etc. but don't let them just play that. Each character has that important dark side. I think that that is the reason Moore kills her dog. To remind us that she is dangerous. Make sure Booth is sufficiently racist and obsessed as well as charming and manipulative. Remind Moore and Squeaky that their attempts took place right after Watergate, and not so far enough removed from JFK, Bobby, and MLK that had they succeeded, they might well have thrown the country into a real uproar. Don't let them, (or Zangara or Byck or Guiteau) get so funny that we forget that they are dangerous.

All the same, some of the Assassins (notably Booth, Czolgosz and Byck) were voicing sentiments felt by a great many other people in the country at the time. While their solution was obviously extreme, all of them had telling and uncomfortable points to make, which the audience will find themselves agreeing with more often than they would probably like. There are many who contend that Emma Goldman not only served as inspiration for Czolgosz, but may actually have put him up to it. They have a terrific scene in the show, which leaves this possiblity open. I did a production where this was played on heavily, with Emma present at the Exposition, watching Czolgosz get in line, wrap his gun, and etc., yet she disappeared before the shot was fired. Emma Goldman scholars will disagree heartily, of course, and it may appear to dilute Czolgosz's sincere commitment, but it was fun to try.

Be careful with your modern Assassins. Audience members tend to have a very visceral reaction to the ones that they can remember first hand. Particularly Oswald, of course. You can hear audible gasps, whispers and much seat shifting when they first realize who he is, and even more when they first see that gun. There is a reason he doesn't sing, at least for this scene. Even Hinckly and Squeaky though, affect the audience in a different way than Czolgosz, or Guiteau. Scarier perhaps, because they seem much more "real" somehow.

What about the debate about using "Something Just Broke" - a song that was added for the ensemble following Scene #16 - the JFK scene. Purists will say that it wasn't used on Broadway, and that the show is about the Assassins, not the victims. Others will say that it was added by the original creators, and serves a definate purpose in allowing the audience the emotional release that they need after the impact of the JFK scene. One of the reasons for the song, and the single biggest reason in my opinion, is that there is a tendency in the show to make the Assassins too sympathetic, and the audience just hates that. They don't mind understanding their motivations, as long as you don't try to force them to agree. They get upset with the production when they feel that we are trying to justify the actions of the Assassins, probably because that is one of the things that they feared the show would try to do when they came in. The Assassins try to justify their actions, of course, but that shouldn't come across as the message of the piece.

"Something Just Broke" helps to make them feel that their emotions and sympathies are being considered. I also believe that the balladeer is key to letting the audience know that their dislikes are as valid as their sympathies. I say this not to randomly moralize, but because the other approach just doesn't work. Another important thing that the new number accomplishes is tying in the ensemble with the show. The ensemble can be used to great effect in the variety of roles that that they cover, and "Something Just Broke" makes them a better integrated part of the show. Care should be taken with the role doubling to make sure that you are not drawing an unconcious parallel where you don't want one - particularly between the Proprietor and other characters, or Emma Goldman and other characters. While the audience will accept the convention of role doubling among the ensemble, they will still feel the parallels. As I mentioned above, this can be used to good effect as well, particularly with the Proprietor.

There are other artistic considerations, of course. But if you trust the material in what Sondheim himself says is the only show of his in which he wouldn't change a thing, you should do fine. Trying to impose too much "concept" on top of what is already there will get you in trouble.

You can buy or rent "stage" guns, although that can run into considerable expense. I do not recommend using a plugged barrel "stage gun" for Czolgosz (see below). You might see if replica guns are available through your local ROTC or Army Reserve. You might also check various gun shops and see if they will loan you guns in exchange for tickets, advertising, or whatever. I have heard of some productions getting guns through the police department. If you do not have an SAFD certified fight instructor or weapons expert available to you, you should also check with one of these sources regarding instructions on the use (including loading and cleaning) of these weapons, and possible use of a firing range for practice. Guns should be emptied and cleaned every night following the performance, and even though you are using blanks, guns and ammunition should both be collected and locked up in separate places. Guns, whether real or not, firing or non, should always be handled with respect and care, and never pointed at another person outside of the actual blocking of the show. In fact, in any but the very smallest house, many fight instructors will tell you to aim slightly upstage of your target during the show. This is usually invisible to the audience, but helps protect the actor playing the victim from the hot gasses and stray bits of powder that vent through the barrel of a gun firing blanks. For the same reason, you should never fire a blank gun pressed directly against someone's head. They can be burned, deafened, and possibly killed. I cannot stress enough that you should seek qualified instruction and take great care when handling weapons.

You will need at least 10 guns, possibly 11. Each of the 9 Assassins has a weapon, and Lee Harvey Oswald actually has two - the rifle he uses to shoot JFK, and the pistol that he is planning to kill himself with at the top of Scene 16. (Since it is presumably the pistol that he kills the cop with later, it should be a .38 - but then, in strict reality, he shouldn't have it with him at the Book Depository). You should have at least on gun backstage, preferably on the person of a levelheaded prop person or stage manager. This gun serves as backup in case one of the onstage guns misfires, and can be used for offstage gunshots. It could certainly be a starter pistol. They can't share guns because they are all onstage, pistols in hand, for the finale, so you are looking at a minimum of 9 pistols + 1 rifle, and with a backstage gun, + 1 more for a total of 11.

Some specific weapons and calibers are mentioned in the script - Moore's .38 (In reality, she used a Smith and Wesson revolver),Czolgosz's .32 (Iver Johnson revolver with black grip - rubber handle with owls stamped on the sides), and Oswald's rifle (6.5 millimeter Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with telescopic site). As I mentioned, Oswald also used a .38 cal revolver. Research told us that Squeaky Fromme used a .45 cal pistol, (and a LEG HOLSTER). Booth actually used a colt, from what we could tell. Hinckley used a .22 cal semi automatic short barrel.. Zangara used a .32 cal revolver . Guiteau used a British "Bull Dog" silver handled .44 cal revolver. He specifically chose the gun because he figured it would be on display in a museum after the assassination, and he wanted it to look good. Byck used a .22 cal revolver. As you can see, to be historically accurate, you end up needing many different caliber guns (and therefore ammunition). Blanks come in several sizes - full load blanks which sound just like a real gunshot, as well as half load, quarter load, and no load blanks, which are decreasingly less loud. (Which might be a good thing, if you run the risk of deafening your actors or audience.) When I did the show, we used + load blanks in the .38's and .32's

"That's great," you say, "but how can I cheat so that I don't spend my entire budget on guns and ammunition, and/or kill or deafen audience members?" Many of the characters can get away with guns that do not actually fire, and several can get away with .22 starter pistols. (Much cheaper and safer, and fires 8 rounds without reloading). In our production, we gave Booth a period "boot gun" derringer that didn't fire. (We cut the soldier totally (saved a costume), and did Booth's suicide shot in a blackout with the offstage gun. IF HIS GUN DOES FIRE, BE SURE THAT HE REMOVES IT FROM HIS HEAD AND POINTS IT AT ARM'S LENGTH EITHER STRAIGHT UP OR STRAIGHT DOWN FOR THE SHOT DURING THE BLACKOUT. FIRING A BLANK GUN PRESSED TO YOUR HEAD IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, AND CAN BE FATAL!

Zangara's gun didn't fire (He only fires when the rest of the group does, and no one notices). Squeaky Fromme's .45 didn't fire (She and Moore pointed their guns at the chicken bucket and took turns yelling BANG!, which escalated into various and more frenetic attacks - machine gun fire, etc. Stupid kid stuff. When that was at it's height, Moore actually (accidentally) fires her gun, which stuns them into silence and scares them both to death before they collapse into giggles).The leg holster was too cumbersome for our Squeaky to wear (darn it!), so she kept the .45 in a pocket of her robe. Our Moore did have a .38, but a real Smith & Wesson is such a cannon that it was a real problem to get in and out of the purse as quickly and as often as she needs to be able to, so we used a snub nose .38 like the police have instead. We gave Guiteau a silver handled .32 rather than a .44, to minimize noise and so he could share ammo with Czolgosz. We had to give Hinckley an automatic so that he could fire enough shots. Oswald's rifle didn't fire (Stylized gunshot, which we did that way for three reasons. One, because he was down center aiming out the "window", and there was too much chance of accidentally hurting an audience member, even with a blank. Two, because to really shoot that rifle in our space would have deafened the assembled. Three, we wanted to do this cool reverb effect with the gunshot, which we accomplished by shooting an (offstage) .38 into a microphone which the sound op could then run through a big reverb unit at the same time that we overlaid a recorded shot. This takes split second timing. Endless echoes . . . ). We gave Byck and Oswald .22 starter pistols, but either or both could get away with guns that do not fire as long as enough other people can fire, so that the company shooting together doesn't sound really pitiful.. Depending on the size of your house, you might be able to get away with doing the actual gunshots offstage, but except for maybe Booth (see above) or some kind of stylized shot like Oswald (see above), I wouldn't recommend it. However, on a big stage you could probably get away with all of your firing weapons being starter pistols, except that Oswald really MUST have a rifle, even if it doesn't fire. A 30.06, or frankly, just about any bolt action rifle with a sight will do, depending on the size of your stage. A period look to Booth's gun is pretty necessary too, even in a big house.

IMPORTANT! It is dangerous to use a starter pistol or any other "stage gun" weapon with a sealed barrel for Czolgosz. Starters and stage guns typically plug the barrel, which prevents stray bits of powder and crap from ejecting that way. Since Czolgosz is usually blocked to shoot the invisible McKinley down center, straight out at the audience, this might seem like a good idea. But he is also supposed to wrap his gun in a Handkerchief - it is how he gets it through the line, and it's mentioned in the lyrics. Guns must vent in some direction, and the guns with plugged barrels generally vent through the side of the gun. If that vent is blocked with a Handkerchief, you can scorch or burn the Handkerchief and/or the actor's hand, or, in a worst case scenario, cause the gun to explode. If you MUST use a gun with a plugged barrel, make sure that Czolgosz is blocked to completely remove the handkerchief before firing. He doesn't have much time.

So, these are the details on the guns for Assassins. Have a good (and safe!)

By request, some more detailed thoughts on the use of slides in Assassins:

It's easy to say, "Oh yes, let's use slides" without considering how that will affect what you do with the rest of your production. And it's not just a matter of "should we use them or not?", because using slides affects just about every aspect of production. In my original article, I put that section in question form to emphasize that there are more options than might be thought in regards to scenery and slides. The use of slides makes a HUGE difference to the physical realities of set and light design, particularly, as well as affecting blocking, timing, and overall tone. And the physical limitations of your space can become a major factor in this decision. If slides are to be projected from the front, they need to either be kept above the heads of the actors or to one side or the other of the action to be seen. They need to be able to find a front of house position that is a correct distance from the stage for the size of image you would like to project (and different size lenses for slide projectors can do wonders), and be accessible to be preset and reset. Rear projection allows you to actually use slides a backdrop, but space limitations backstage are usually a big factor in how far back you can set a projector, and therefore, how large an image you are able to project. Slide projectors also give off a certain amount of heat, light, and noise, which may be a problem in any location you give them. Using two projectors and dissolving back and forth between them with a "Dove" unit (see your camera store - you'll be there for the lenses anyway), is cleaner and MUCH more attractive than using a single projector. I recommend some kind of emergency cut off switch (or easy access to the plug!) in case they really go awry at some point. Slides are particularly susceptible to Murphy's Law. Using a computer and presentation program can help immensely.

Once the decision is made, you need to seriously think about the conceptual statement that you want to make (or DON'T want to make) with your slides. A slide which comments on the action of the scene below will add a very different tone than one which complements the scene, or simply serves as a backdrop. In any case, the director has to be aware of the ways that an audience's focus can and should be split.

The original NY production used slides, as did my production and many others. It can be done without them though. And, depending on how you want to employ slides in the production, as well as the physical realities of your space, you may want to make different choices than the original production did. Slides can be used to create or reinforce a literal setting, like Booth's barn, or the bar, or Hinckley's rec room. They can serve to mirror the scene without being quite so literal as well. In my production, for instance, the transition into the Moore/Fromme scene had slides of buttons with typical slogans of the day to set the mood, as well as time and place. They can also be used to counterpoint or comment on what is happening on stage. We did all three at one point or another. Many productions would choose to use them in only one or two of these capacities.

As far as where to get them, you basically have two choices. You can buy or rent them from a theatre that has done the show before, or you can create your own using images from books, newspapers, and the like. (Be careful of copyright considerations). We went to a company in Tampa that specializes in creating slides. (I'm sure most major cities have something of the kind.) They not only photograph material to make slides, they also use the computer to either create images or text, or alter or enhance images which have been scanned in. Because of this, and some incredible research, we could have material as varied as the buttons above, period newspaper headlines and pages, a copy of an engraved invitation to Guiteau's hanging, images of all the relevant Presidents superimposed on American flags, a picture of a glass bottle factory in operation, and 8 different pictures of Ronald Reagan in a variety of exposures.

I believe that slides can add a lot to the production. I would certainly use them if I did the show again. I just think that it is important for directors and actors to be aware of where they are going to be, and what they are going to show, when putting the show together, because they definitely color an audience's perception of a scene. If they are not conceived as part of the event from the beginning, then they can just look hasty and distracting, rather than enhancing the production. Plan ahead!

So, these are the details on the guns for Assassins. Have a good (and safe!)

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Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...”
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