When asked to name his favourite self-penned musical, Stephen Sondheim’s response, if he deigns to answer such a trite question, is often Assassins, the show he wrote with book writer John Weidman. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says of this 1990 revue-style musical about the people who’ve made attempts on the lives of American presidents.
It’s not the most obvious choice for a musical, you might say – and you’d be right – yet despite or because of the jumble of American musical styles on offer, from cakewalks and hoedowns to Pete Seeger and The Carpenters, Assassins works extremely well and Sondheim’s confidence in the show is well placed.
A new production of this all-too-rarely-heard musical opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark for the winter season, courtesy of wunderkind director Jamie Lloyd and producer David Babani. Not only is this partnership a thrilling prospect, but the casting has also set theatreland abuzz, with Catherine Tate, Mike McShane, Aaron Tveit, Jamie Parker, Carly Bawden and Simon Lipkin among the exciting names on offer.
It’s the latter two – CARLY BAWDEN and SIMON LIPKIN – who take some time out during a Friday rehearsal at the Menier to talk to Musical Theatre Review’s CRAIG GLENDAY about this twisted interpretation of the American dream. Bawden, who played to much acclaim as Eliza Doolittle at the Crucible’s My Fair Lady, features as the wannabe Gerald Ford assassin Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, while Lipkin – last seen in I Can’t Sing! – The X Factor Musical at the London Palladium, although probably best known for creating the roles of Nicky and Trekkie in the London production of Avenue Q – takes on the role of the fictional Proprietor, a Machiavellian figure who goads the assassins into action.
How are the rehearsals going?
Carly Bawden: Good, thanks. This is the end of our second week and it’s been amazing.
Simon Lipkin: It’s been intense. Not literally ‘in tents’… Intense! It’s different to anything I’ve ever done before. Really really different! But it’s exciting to do something different and to be a part of something that – before you’ve even done it – is so respected and revered.
There’s this pressure, which is both exciting and terrifying, to honour the show, and having Jamie [Lloyd] on board is like a gift from above. He’s amazing. His vision – his way of looking at things – is so way out of the box and brilliant. He loves a bit of darkness in his productions but he’s also a very funny man, and his productions are very funny, so he’s perfect for this show. Yes, this piece is dark – it’s about a group of people that took it into their own hands to murder or try to kill – but there’s also a lot of humour in it.
Did you both audition for Jamie?
Both: Yes, on the same day!
SL: I got the phone call asking if I wanted to come in, and I’ve always wanted to work at the Chocolate Factory, I think it’s an amazing theatre. They sent me some stuff and I had a good old read of it. It’s slightly overwhelming when you get sent ten or 12 pages of a Sondheim song. It was the whole of the opening song [‘Everybody’s Got The Right’]. I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot!’. Then I got a phone call from David Babani, the producer, for a little catch up, and he went, ‘Oh, PS, do you want to be in Assassins?’ ‘Yeah, that would be nice, that would fun!’.
CB: They sent me through a couple of scenes to look at, so I did that, and the duet that Fromme sings with [Ronald Reagan’s almost-assassin] John Hinckley, ‘Unworthy of Your Love’. There was also a little bit of the company material. It was a lovely environment going into audition for these guys.
You actually look a bit like Lynette Fromme…
CB: I’m 26 [the same age as Fromme when she shot at Gerald Ford] but she was so young looking. She’s got a young face and quite a childlike quality. It’s odd – she was childlike but she was also the mother figure of the Charles Manson cult.
Have you done much research into the real Lynette Fromme?
CB: Yeah, it was really exciting, actually. I did a whole bunch of research before the audition because there’s so much material to look at about her and Charlie Manson and the three ladies that were involved in the Sharon Tate killing. There were some voice recordings, which were really useful to listen to, and it was interesting to see her physically while she was in jail.
And she’s out of prison now?
CB: Yes, and chilling out in upstate New York. Apparently, a couple of the ladies who’ve played her before wrote to her while she was in prison and she wrote back. She explained things, gave her views and shared things about her life.
Simon, your character isn’t a real-life person, is he?
SL: No, I play the Proprietor. He’s… How do you describe him? He’s like… an ethereal presence that is a state of mind. And an influence on all of these assassins. He’s the little naughty voice on their shoulder that gives them their murderous intentions. There are two characters: there’s the Balladeer, that Jamie Parker plays, and there’s me, the Proprietor. The Balladeer is the personification of the American Dream and Americana, and that very American mindset that says if you work hard and you keep going and you stay focused, everything you want will eventually come your way. What I do is say: ‘Or, if I give you this gun, you can achieve everything you want to achieve a lot quicker. You’ll get noticed, you’ll get the attention you need.’ So there’s like a yin and yang – it’s not as clean cut as an angel and a devil, but he’s that little goading voice. And along with this, I play… erm, lots of other parts. Can I say any more? Probably not! You’ll just have to wait and see!
Have you rehearsed as an entire ensemble?
CB: Yes, especially this week.
SL: In some aspects, the show is quite vignette-y – characters turn up and give their version of the story and you see their assassination attempt – so in the first week, everybody just worked through the bits that they were doing. This week, though, we’ve come into the room together and seen how we all fit together. Now we’re seeing what’s going on around us. You’ve got a roomful of people who are all leading actors and actresses in their own right, and to have them all a part of this ensemble is incredible.
CB: It’s a fun, generous room to be in. And a great laugh.
SL: On the surface, yes, it’s an intense premise about killing. But it delves much deeper than that. Look at someone like Charles Guiteau, who shot [James] Garfield: he was an incredibly funny man. They hung him for what he did and he danced up the steps of the gallows and then recited a poem. That’s what happened for real! This wasn’t a sombre man – he was full of life and energy and personality.
Does Assassins work as well in the UK, where there isn’t really a history of assassination?
SL: More than ever, the entire world is aware of acts of terrorism, or of violence against the ‘Institution” in whatever form. There’s now so much accessibility that anyone can put up a video on YouTube about their views and what they’re going to do. These were the first guys and girls to get on board with that. It has so much relevance. I don’t think that too many Americans even know all that much about the history of assassination, so not knowing the history isn’t a barrier to understanding the show. The history is explained, so you’re never not given the information you need to understand what’s going on.
CB: We may have less proximity to those things going on, and to the gun culture in America, but we’re still extremely aware of it. There’s a lot of fear and fascination at the same time. Take all those shootings in American schools – it’s all very timely.
What’s it like working at the Menier?
CB: I’m so happy to be at the Menier again. I had such a good time working here on Pippin so it’s lovely to be back.
SL: There’s something about doing this show in a place where people can be that close to something so intense. It’s going to be a wonderful experience for the audience.
CB: And the traverse setting for Assassins is more immersive.
SL: People will be very excited when they walk through the door to the theatre.
Yes, I’ve heard some interesting rumours about the set…
SL: Then we’ll leave them as just that: rumours!
Before I let you get back to work, what are your career highlights so far?
SL: I’ll always say Avenue Q. Doing that show was very special and one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. It was awesome. I was young – I was 19 when I got that job – and there had never been a show like it before. It was a joy to do.
And Star Wars?
SL: No, they were just very vicious rumours. It made it into the papers that I was going to be in Star Wars but no, I’m definitely not!
CB: The highlight for me was playing Liza in My Fair Lady. That was pretty amazing. And working for Kneehigh Theatre. They were my first job in town as well, and I loved getting to create something and feel like it’s really yours. Their people, their style, their ethic are all wonderful.
Might Assassins be a career highlight?
CB: Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see. This is so much about the ensemble, which is what I actually love best about being in a show. Just getting in, pulling your sleeves up and getting involved.
SL: There’s no better feeling than knowing that you’re a part of something bigger, working together with other people to create something. That is so satisfying.
* Assassins, runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 21 November 2014 to 7 March 2015 (press night is 1 December).
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