This week, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical Assassins will have its first major New York performances since the 2004 Roundabout Theatre Company production*, in a concert version as part of City Center Encores!’s Off-Center series. Given the controversy sparked last month by The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, in which Caesar and his wife were portrayed as analogues of Donald and Melania Trump, prompting the withdrawal of sponsors, sparking disruptions of performances and precipitating threats against the production, the theatre, the artists and the staff, it seemed an appropriate moment to speak with Weidman about how Assassins has been perceived over the past 26 years and how the newest incarnation might be received. Weidman, a former president of The Dramatists Guild, currently serves as president of the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, founded to, according to the organization’s website, “advocate, educate and provide a new resource in defense of the First Amendment.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Howard Sherman: Given the state of discourse about public expression, given what happened with Julius Caesar in Central Park, it seems that putting up this show at this moment carries not necessarily more weight than other times, but that people may bring some other baggage to it in a different way they might have at other times. Back in 1991, it did not move to Broadway, the reason given being it wasn’t the right time, it was the first Gulf War, etc. Then there was the first planned Roundabout production, coming right after 9/11, when you and Steve and others felt it was not the right time to do the show. So is there ever a right time or ever a wrong time to do Assassins?
John Weidman: I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time to do it. I think the reception of the first production was honestly more a function of the fact that people did not know what to expect when they came into to theater. They were not prepared for the shock value of the opening number, which was a deliberate choice on our part to kind of knock the audience off balance. I think that, 25 years ago, even though there had been many adventurous musicals that had been done, some people simply assumed that the musical theater was not an appropriate place in which to tackle material that was this fundamentally serious. I think we’re well past that assumption at this point, given the kind of musicals that have been written in the last 25 years.
When the show was scheduled to be done at the Roundabout, and when we decided to delay the production after 9/11, that wasn’t a good time to do Assassins. But it wasn’t because we thought people would find the show problematic, that they would resent a show about presidential assassins in that sudden new political moment. In order to engage an audience, given the way the show’s designed and the way it’s written, it requires an audience which is, frankly, prepared to laugh in certain places, to take the humor on board. That’s part of the roller coaster ride of the show. We all felt that at that time, it was unfair to ask an audience which was grieving to come into a theater and to engage this kind of material in a way that was intermittently humorous. The show in that context simply wouldn’t work. And If it wasn’t going to work, it made sense to delay the production.
As far as now goes? When the show first opened, we had a conservative Republican in the White House, and then for eight years we had a centrist Democrat in the White House, and then for eight years we had a conservative Republican in the White House, and then we had a centrist Democrat who was black, and now we’ve got this guy. The show’s been performed continuously over the course of those 25 years in all kinds of different political and socioeconomic contexts. This is just a different one.
That said, people will obviously come into the theater from a different place, because the world outside the theater is a different place. Which will affect the way in which the members of the audience take the show on board.
But I don’t think it makes it a particularly good or bad time to do Assassins. Personally, I think it’s always a good time to do the show, because the show is meant to be provocative, and hopefully people will walk out of the theater talking about it, that it will provoke the kinds of conversations that Steve and I hoped it would provoke when we wrote it. That should happen now the way it’s happened with previous productions. They may be different conversations, but that’s what I would hope would happen.
Sherman: Have you and Steve made any changes in the show since it was last seen in New York, since the 2004 Roundabout production?
Weidman: No. The text of the show that’s going to be performed at City Center is exactly the same as the text which was performed at the Roundabout. And the text at the Roundabout was exactly the same as the text that was performed at Playwrights Horizons with the exception of “Something Just Broke,” the song which we added in London. The show’s really been what it’s been since it was first performed 25 years ago.
Sherman: Assassins was performed this spring at Yale Rep. Was there a difference in response to the show than for previous productions?
Weidman: You know, I was curious to see if there would be a difference in the way in which the show was received after the last election, and Yale was the first significant production that was available to me. I didn’t feel, sitting in the audience, as if there was any kind of shift that I was aware of in terms of the way in which the audience was connecting to the material.
Sherman: Speaking to you both as an author of the piece, and also in your role with the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, it’s fair to say that there was some very heightened conversation, and actions around the Julius Caesar, admittedly by people who didn’t see it, didn’t take the time to understand it or understand its context. In the wake of that, are you concerned at all about how, not even the audience, but how people external to the audience might choose to speak about this piece?
Weidman: The word you used was concerned. I’m not in any way worried about it. At the same time, I’m sensitive to the possibility that in this current political climate, there will be people who will react to the idea of a musical about the people who tried to attack the President, that they will react to that in a way which is similar to the way in which some people reacted to the show in 1991, when they hadn’t seen it and weren’t going to see it. They simply knew what the show was about, and they had a problem with that. That happened then and that could conceivably happen now.
I do think that we’ve had 25 years in which this show’s been performed a lot everywhere, and so people have a better idea of what the show’s ambitions are and what its intentions are. I’ve got Google alerts set on my computer to Assassins, because I’m always curious to see how the show’s being received. The reviews tend to be really good, which is always nice, but the main thing is people writing about the show all over the country, in a variety of different kinds of publications, seem to understand what Steve and I were intending. That’s really reassuring. People get the show. They can like any show, they can like it a lot or not like it a lot. But they seem to understand what we were doing, and I assume that that will be the case this time around as well.
Sherman: In reading some of the press about the prior productions and some of the commentary, one of the ways in which the show is described is that it’s about, and I’m not quoting here, I’m paraphrasing, it’s about an America that causes people who feel they have no voice to take extreme actions. As we look at politics today, there are those who say that where we are is about people who felt they were disenfranchised from the political system, and that has brought us to the real polarization that we’re at now. Might that affect people’s perceptions?
Weidman: As Steve and I started to talk about this material 25 years ago, I realized at a certain point very early on that what drew me to the material was an attempt to explain something to myself which I had not understood since I was 17 years old when Kennedy was shot. The Kennedy assassination was my first real experience of loss and it was devastating to me. Two of my friends and I got together and we went down to D.C. and stood on the sidewalk as the funeral cortege went by, and all the subsequent attempts to try make sense of what happened — conspiracy theories. Was it the Cubans, was it the CIA, the FBI? It all seemed like, on some level, a waste of time to me. The fundamental question was: how could so much grief and pain be caused by one angry little man in a t-shirt with a rifle in Texas?
When Steve and I started to talk about these other personalities who had articulated a variety of wildly different motives for attacking the President, we said, ‘Well if we gather them together and look at them as a group’ – something which had not been done much, even by academics – ‘would some common grievance, some common complaint beyond what they articulated begin to emerge? And if it did, that would be a useful thing to write about.’ That is at the heart of what the piece explores. The people who, with one or two exceptions, picked up guns did tend to be, when you look at them as a group, people who were operating on the margins, the fringes of what we would consider a mainstream American experience.
In the last election, a lot of people who you and I would have identified as operating on the margins of a mainstream middle-class American experience, cast their votes in a particular way and elected a particular guy President. That does seem to suggest a different way of looking at the characters on stage in the show. I’m not quite sure what the change is. I’m not quite sure what it means in terms of how one observes their behavior and listens to what they have to say. But we are in a different political moment, and that moment will undoubtedly have an impact on how the audience responds to the piece.
I do think it will probably make for conversations on the way out of the theater which will be different from the conversations people might have had five years ago or ten years ago. I’m not sure if any of that’s clear. If it’s not, it’s because it’s something I’m still working through in my own head.
Sherman: Given that the run is sold out, if there is conversation about why this show at this time, and if people choose to try to politicize it, is there something you would like them to know beyond the simplistic plot descriptions of a marketing brochure or a PR release about the show?
Weidman: I have always felt that that it’s essential with this show that it be allowed to speak for itself. It obviously can only speak to the audience that’s in the building, but that’s true of any theater piece. You know, somebody can describe to you what Hamlet means, but if that’s all it took to appreciate Hamlet, then you wouldn’t have to waste time listening to Shakespeare’s language for three and a half hours. I think you need to experience the piece itself, and I think that’s true of this piece. That said, Assassins is an exploration of where these vicious acts came from, in an attempt to get a better handle on how to prevent them from happening again in the future.
Sherman: Speaking to your role with the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund: is there any sense that there has been a change in people wanting to assert their own prerogative over what happens on stage? Has that changed in the past six to eight months? Does DLDF have more concerns now than in the past, or is it just consistent with the kinds of challenges that you’ve faced?
Weidman: I’m not aware of any kind of seismic shift, in terms of what people are either attempting to repress or ways in which people are self-censoring, although it would be hard to know about the second one. It may be the decisions at the high school level, it may the decisions at the amateur level, but also at the stock level, that people are making more cautious decisions in terms of what they think a school board or parent body or a subscriber base is going to be comfortable with. It’s entirely possible that they are shying away from things which they think are likely to be controversial. I would obviously hope not, because this seems to me a period when it’s important for controversial material to be produced and to become part of the national conversation.
When DLDF gave an award last year to Jeffrey Seller, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Thomas Kail, and the cast of Hamilton for the speech that was made from the stage when Mike Pence was in the audience, I wrote the citation and I handed the award to Jeffrey. The point I wanted to make most forcefully was that Mike Pence apparently had stood there and listened and that was fine, but the President-elect the next morning had not only castigated the cast for being rude, but he had instructed them to apologize. I said if censors tell artists what they’re not allowed to say – here we have someone going beyond that, instructing artists what they’re required to say. The latter is a genuinely frightening prospect, and I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that it was something we had to be concerned about, but I think we all feel like we’re living in a new world where anything is possible and nothing is surprising.
* There was a one-night reunion concert of the 2012 cast, held as a benefit for Roundabout.