“Assassins” premiered in 1990, more than three decades before the nation was shaken by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.
But echoes from that dark day of grievance-fueled political violence are nevertheless inescapable in Courtney O’Connor’s first-rate production of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about presidential assassins.
It’s not that O’Connor — helming “Assassins” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where she is the producing artistic director — gestures overtly in the direction of Jan. 6. She doesn’t. She wisely lets “Assassins” speak for itself.
But one of the hallmarks of an enduringly resonant work — and “Assassins” decidedly fits in that category — is that it can speak to the current moment; indeed, can even seem that it was created in response to the current moment. Certain lines sung or spoken in “Assassins” could serve as MAGA mantras: “No one is listening to us.” “Where’s my prize?” “The country is not what it was.”
That last line is delivered by John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln in a theater in 1865. Robert St. Laurence’s portrayal of Booth at Lyric Stage captures both Booth’s silky elegance and his narcissistic derangement. There comes a scene late in “Assassins” when Booth separates himself from the ensemble, moves downstage, and surveys the bevy of killers and would-be killers of presidents with the pride of a Founding Father.
Indeed, that is how members of that lethal fraternity see him. And the gang’s all here: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dan Prior, who also plays the narrating Balladeer), who killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas 60 years ago in November; Charles J. Guiteau (Christopher Chew), who assassinated James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan), who murdered William McKinley in 1901.
Also on hand are those who tried but failed to take a president’s life: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (an outstanding Lisa Kate Joyce), who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford in September 1975; Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone), who unsuccessfully sought to kill Ford that same month; Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler, his voice a half-growl, half-shout that adds up to pure rage), who tried to hijack an airliner in 1974 that he planned to crash into the White House and kill Richard M. Nixon; Giuseppe Zangara (Teddy Edgar), who tried to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in the process; and John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less), who shot Ronald Reagan and his press secretary James Brady in 1981.
Jackson Jirard deftly captures the breezy amorality of the gun-hawking Proprietor of a shooting gallery, who gets the proceedings started.
One of the most memorable moments in productions of “Assassins” occurs during “Gun Song,” when Guiteau points a prop gun at the audience while singing: “When you’ve a gun/Everybody pays attention.”
But at Lyric Stage, Chew simply cocks his fingers into the shape of a revolver as he points at us. In an era of mass shootings, it’s perhaps understandable that director O’Connor would opt to water down the scene. But it greatly diminishes the impact of a moment that should be jolting and unnerving.
Weidman’s book successfully juggles different eras and the convergence of extravagant, monomaniacal personalities. Sondheim’s score illustrates once again that part of his genius lay in his ability not just to imagine why his characters do what they do, but to approach the matter from the inside-out, as it were. No matter how extreme their actions (think of Sweeney Todd), he could inhabit them so thoroughly that his songs seemed to emanate from their id rather than his mind.
Consider the ballad “Unworthy of Your Love,” which features one of the most beautiful melodies Sondheim ever wrote — and is sung by two thoroughly unhinged would-be killers. Fromme pledges undying devotion to Charles Manson (”Take my blood and my body for your love/Let me feel fire, let me drink poison/Tell me to tear my heart in two/If that’s what you want me to do”), while Hinckley begs the actress Jodie Foster to tell him how he can earn her love (that’s what he sought in his attempt on Reagan’s life). The contrast between the gently flowing music and the creepy lyrics is jarring, but it does remind us that their delusions were real to them.
“Assassins” acknowledges that some of them saw their deeds as remedies for social injustice (”I did it because no one cares about the poor man’s pain,” Czolgosz says in “Another National Anthem.”) Sondheim and Weidman do not excuse the deeds, obviously, but they do remind audiences that injustice did — and does — exist. Sondheim’s lyric speaks to the outsiders in all times and places: “There’s another national anthem, folks, for those who never win.”
Led by music director and keyboardist Dan Rodriguez, the four-member band performs with punch while not drowning out the singers, a problem at some Lyric Stage productions. There’s an ominous power to the choreography by Ilyse Robbins. The tight, almost martial movements she has devised for the ensemble when they move as one underscores the collective damage the assassins inflicted on the country.
O’Connor’s predecessor and mentor, Spiro Veloudos, made Lyric Stage synonymous with Sondheim over the decades. Veloudos listed “Assassins” as one of his favorites among the 65 productions he directed at the theater. By the end of her career, O’Connor might say the same thing. In any case, this “Assassins” makes clear that tackling Sondheim’s works, however thorny, is a tradition worth continuing.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Music director, Dan Rodriguez. Select choreography, Ilyse Robbins. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Oct. 15. Tickets $25-$80. 617-585-5678, www.LyricStage.com