OGDEN — Audiences only familiar with Stephen Sondheim through “Into the Woods” are about to be startled by the sound of gunshots.
The accessible, often-staged-in-Utah musical about Cinderella and a beanstalk-climbing Jack is leap years away from the composer’s most provocative work appropriately titled “Assassins.”
The challenging-by-design stage show offers a carousel of killers and would-be killers for whom the American dream has soured as they turned their disappointment and took aim at a U.S. president.
“Sondheim and book writer John Weidman tried very hard not to make light of the topic. They didn’t want people to have the idea that they were celebrating murderers,” says Anne Stewart Mark, who directs Dark Horse Company Theatre’s production.
“The piece should speak for itself,” Sondheim told the New York Times at the Tony Award-winning show’s 1990 premiere. “We don’t want to tell people how or what they should think about it. We don’t want to preach or promulgate.”
“I have the understanding that the way to present ‘Assassins’ is to just present it and let the audience take home from it what they may,” she explains. “I’m not trying to skew the piece one way to make these people heroes or anti-heroes, or something else.
“These people were all disturbed and they all decided to lash out and get the most, pardon the expression, bang for their buck.”
The “Assassins” story begins with John Wilkes Booth and continues with the nearly forgotten Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ends with John Hinckley, a total of nine infamous historic individuals. The show also involves the notion that Americans can do anything they want and ignore the consequences to others that has been encouraged by hundreds of self-help philosophers.
In “Art Isn’t Easy,” author Joanne Gordon scholastically pronounces that the musical drama “confronts pain in order to cauterize the decay and heal the sicknesses which lurk at the core of our society.”
“What makes ‘Assassins’ peculiarly American is that some people in America believe that they not only have the right to pursue happiness, which is what is guaranteed in the Constitution, but the right to happiness, not just to pursue it,” Mark explains. “They are saying, ‘By thunder, we have the right to be happy, and if we aren’t than it’s somebody else’s problem.’ 'Assassins' has people who have taken that to the extreme.”
That theme is echoed in a song titled “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy.”
“I had to do quite a bit of soul searching to decide if I could direct it after Sandy Hook happened,” she explains. “I got the offer to direct this, and the next day that horrible massacre happened. I had to call my priest. I’m a good Episcopalian. I explained that the show is about people wielding guns all over the stage.
"We conferred for quite a while, and he said if it opens a dialogue about mental illness and the availability of guns these days then it’s worth doing. The authors aren’t just some hacks who have written a scurrilous premise. These are respected artists who have put together a very interesting and listenable piece of work.”
The masterfully written show intrigues Mark partly because “Sondheim has the ability to write lyrics that are poetic without being poetry. Poetry is something that you can go back and read multiple times to extract its meaning. But with lyrics, you hear them once and they have to stick. He is brilliant at being very specific about what he wants the audience to hear in that instant in time. And if it’s important, he repeats it.”
In “Assassins,” the award-winning composer “also takes themes from distinctly American composers throughout the 150 years that this play covers, from the end of the Civil War to the 1980s. Each of his songs has a motif that it follows, whether it’s Stephen Foster or Aaron Copland. I think the song ‘I Am Unworthy of Your Love’ sounds very pop, as if composers like Burt Bacharach or Marvin Hamlisch would have written it in the ’80s.”
In addition, “we have very talented cast members, and they are doing a phenomenal job interpreting this material,” she summarizes. “And I’m looking forward to people hearing it.”
Content advisory: profane, adult language and themes
If you go
What: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins”
Where: Ziegfeld Theatre in Ogden Feb. 14-17 and the Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake Feb. 28-March 3
How much: $25-$17