Presidential politics can be murderous, as shown in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Starting with James Wilkes Booth, America’s first assassin of a sitting president, this chamber musical digs up both the infamous and the forgotten, men and women so enraged by being left out of the American dream that they turned to murder to solve their problems. Rich Gray plays Charles Guiteau in this latest co-production of ACT-A Contemporary Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre.
When he got the casting call, Gray’s first act was finding out more about Guiteau, who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881. “I didn’t know anything about Guiteau but the minute that I was cast, I became obsessed with him. Actually all the actors felt the same,” he said. “We all did tons of research on our characters to learn the background” of John Wilkes Booth (played by Louis Hobson), Samuel Byck (Matt Wolfe), Leon Czolgosz (Brandon O’Neill), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Laura Griffith), John Hinckley (Frederick Hagreen), Sara Jane Moore (Kendra Kassebaum), Lee Harvey Oswald (Nathan Brockett) and Guiseppe Zangara (John Coons).
Of all the presidential assassins in the show, Guiteau is “the number one crazy,” Gray asserted. While in prison, “he even put an ad in the newspaper for a wife. And he recited a poetry on the scaffold, which Sondheim used in one lyric.”
“Assassins” is created as a series of vignettes where the characters collide in and outside of time, so Guiteau and Sara Jane Moore, failed assassin of Gerald Ford, cross paths. Gray said ACT’s artistic director John Langs, who personally directed this show, kept the dramatic tension taunt throughout by finding a way to bind it all into a continuous story. “He’s the perfect guy to lead it. He keeps pushing us farther and farther, challenging all of us, even as we went through previews. I don’t think this is a show that will just settle. It will grow over the run.”
By staging it in ACT’s Falls Theatre, the audience also is more immersed in the action than if it had been done at the 5th’s larger house, said Gray. “It’s the same for the actors. We can see all the audience members and see how they react.” The designers also have “transformed the space. Taken away a lot of the walls and it opens up the stage in a haunting way. I think it’s going to influence a lot of people on how they design for this space in the future.”
It’s also a chance to see a finely honed local cast tackle complex, dark, and just plain crazy characters. “I think we’re in a golden age in Seattle, especially for musical theater,” said Gray. “We have an immense group of very talented people here interested in how musical theater works in the next age. Shows like “Assassins” challenge your personal views and that’s what theater should do.”
What enabled him to play Guiteau, said Gray, was recognizing that this 19th century preacher, writer and lawyer was “a wide-eyed optimist and, in a weird way, rather puckish. It’s just a great, great role. All of us are in love with the roles. Which is not to say that I’m in love with the [actual Guiteau]. He was a terrible human being. And that’s a key part of this play.”
“Assassins” is not about making monsters into heroes, said Gray, but asking the audience to examine how somebody could become so disenfranchised that they believe that the only way to solve their problems is to kill the president. That it has hit the Seattle stage in the middle of one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern memory has not escaped the cast nor the audience’s notice.
“After the first preview, one audience member told me that he needed a couple of days to process it,” said Gray. “The show doesn’t celebrate these characters. You should be frightened of them…and it should make you think. Everyone in this country is a little bit terrified right now. There’s so much anger and divisiveness, and that’s going to be on everyone’s mind when they hear the very first note of the score.”
Throughout the musical, Sondheim’s music and lyrics, as well as John Weidman’s clever script, make it clear that choosing violence leaves nobody satisfied. None of the assassins created the change that they wanted. Much of Sondheim’s musical contains “powerful language about the presidency as an institution. What it means,” said Gray.
As unsettling as “Assassins” is, Gray argues that now is the perfect time for Seattle to discover why Sondheim, usually his own most severe critic, has called this piece a near perfect musical. For Gray and the rest of the actors, “it’s always been one on our bucket list of shows to do. I’m kind of giddy to be cast in this. I just want people to see it as soon as possible.”
“Assassins” continues through May 8 at ACT. For more on times and tickets, check ACT’s website.