WATERTOWN — The characters include names of utter infamy: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. Also on stage are Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, plus others less familiar to non-historians, such as Giuseppe Zangara and Samuel Byck. What they have in common is that they were presidential assassins, although for some the title will always bear the prefix “would-be.”
They explain themselves as best they can in “Assassins,” the musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman beginning performances Saturday in a New Repertory Theatre production. Transcripts of the rehearsal room’s dark humor would probably sound wrong to the public, director Jim Petosa agrees with a chuckle.
“The world of the characters is a very dark one,” says Petosa. “Since they feel validated in what they’re doing, their pursuit is a positive objective for them. So the room is filled with a group of actors who identify with their characters, trying to advocate from their point of view. The fact that their point of view is twisted certainly makes it a macabre experience.”
But it also makes the show a lot of fun, he says. The musical “has got a lot of humor, a lot of wit in it, so, similar to ‘Sweeney Todd,’ audiences will find themselves laughing at some very dark constructs.”
“Assassins” debuted off-Broadway in 1990, the most violent era of American political assassinations and attempts still looming large in our national rear-view mirror. Its 2004 Broadway production, as our idea of present danger had shifted to terrorists, lasted for 101 performances and won five Tonys, including best revival of a musical. Petosa says that while we may look overseas for villains these days, we find them at home too. It’s just that their aim has shifted — to schools and workplaces, movie theaters and malls.
“We’re dealing with an era where this notion of committing an act of notoriety in order to gain your own personal identity, your own immortality, becomes increasingly commonplace,” says Petosa, who is also New Rep’s artistic director. “Now we see acts of gun violence being perpetrated against all kinds of people. You don’t have to shoot presidents anymore to enact this sense of permanence in this pantheon of the notorious. It’s a problem that faces America, and we don’t really know what we’re doing about it. This production resonates in a very significant way in 2014. I think it has grown in its impact, rather than diminished.”
The musical starts out in a carnival shooting gallery and gives the assassins a chance to say — or rather, sing — their piece, to explain their motives as best they can. The best-known Boston theater names in the cast of 12 are Benjamin Evett as the Proprietor, McCaela Donovan as Fromme, and Paula Langton as Moore. Booth is played by Mark Linehan, who worked for Petosa on “The Last Five Years” at New Rep a few years ago, and Petosa says he’s particularly well-suited to play Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.
“He’s a singer of real confidence and reliability and training — because Booth’s music requires a skilled voice,” says the director, whose production also includes an eight-piece orchestra.
Linehan says it can be a difficult role to sing; his first number stretches across two octaves and comes as Booth is wounded and about to die. But that’s not the only challenge.
“It’s pretty surreal,” says Linehan. “Any character you play, you have to connect, and on some level you have to love. And when you’re playing the American Judas, it can feel pretty odd at times. You just try to tell the man’s story as best you can and let it land as it does.”
He tries not to do too much research when playing a real character, as the temptation to “sink into tomes” can be a crutch for an actor who’s not connecting with a character. And he was concerned about something else: This is the first time he’s played an actor.
“I didn’t know what that would mean. I’ve never had to pretend to be something I am,” he says. But Booth’s hugely successful acting career is not a major factor in the play, although his charisma, which also attracted supporters to his assassination plan, is.
Some of the assassins are “genuinely nuts,” Linehan says, but he notes that, as Petosa has pointed out to the cast, “What’s scary is that if you remove that one single act from a lot of these characters’ lives, they would actually be pretty average Americans who we could all identify with.”
Petosa is also director of the School of Theatre, College of Fine Arts, at Boston University and a professor there. He directed a student production of “Assassins” two years ago, and experimented with approaches he has ramped up in the New Rep production. The central one focuses on the relationship between characters called the Proprietor, who provides the assassins their weapons, and the Balladeer (Evan Gambardella), who tells their stories.
“The Proprietor originally was perceived as kind of a carnival barker,” Petosa said. “We’ve upped the ante for that character and really turned him into this kind of anti-Uncle Sam character and the purveyor of what one character calls ‘another national anthem.’ A different American dream. The dream for characters for whom the traditional American dream is not available.
“The Balladeer represents this folkloric sense of telling history in a way that maintains the American ideal and puts those two characters into a constant state of conflict throughout the play that doesn’t get resolved until the end. That is something we started playing with in the university production that we have taken further in the New Rep production that is yielding a lot,” Petosa says.
Of course, Sondheim is
noted for being attentive to changes in playwrights’ conceptions. He has supported some reinventions of his own work but famously blasted American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus for tweaking her Broadway-bound “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” Petosa is quick to say there’s nothing out of bounds here.
“There’s not a line that is altered, not a word that is altered, it’s juxtapositions, it’s image, it’s nonverbal,” he says. “I’m talking about the same directorial and performative interpretive tools we apply to Shakespeare without altering his language. It’s applying the same interpretive tool bag to this writer, and his work is so resonant you can do that.”
The approach simply means “the journey through the play becomes clarified,” he says. “I’m eager to see how audiences respond to it. Whether people like it or not is not something that worries me so much, it’s does the work illuminate? Does the work give you a perspective you might not have had before you saw the piece, or even give you more incisive questions?”