As it gets set to kick off its 30th anniversary season, Signature Theatre will stage the Tony Award-winning musical, “Assassins” from Aug. 11 through Sept. 29.
The musical marks the 30th Stephen Sondheim production the theatre has tackled, and one that Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is excited to bring to the stage.
“I felt like it was the right time to do this show, in this city and this time,” he said. “It’s all about this group of people who felt like they weren’t being listened to and ignored, and it seemed there were a lot of parallels of what was happening in our country.”
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the story revolves around the portrayal of nine notorious men and women who attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States, with “characters” such as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.
“It’s about this group of assassins who get together in what’s kind of like a support group, and tell their stories of why they did what they did, either in assassinating or trying to assassinate a president, and get their point of view from it,” Schaeffer said. “You wonder how one person could inflict that much hurt and harm on a country. That’s what the show is about.”
Signature has put on the production once before, but it’s one that’s not often done in our area.
“The last time we did this show was in 2006 and I just thought it would be a great time to revisit ‘Assassins,’” Schaeffer said. “The material is so fantastic—Weidman’s book is so great and Sondheim’s music and lyrics are brilliant—it’s almost the perfect musical. I always feel like we should trust the material and don’t need to encumber it with all your own ideas.”
With that in mind, Schaeffer knew he wanted to collect an amazing cast to fill out the show, and he called on Signature favorites such as Nova Y. Payton, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Evan Casey and Bobby Smith.
“This show is all about the characters and these people, and we have amazing D.C.-based actors taking part, with all people who have worked at Signature except for one,” he said. “We’re just letting them shine on the stage.”
There is also an ensemble of five actors in the show who sing about the conscience of the country.
“When you see the two worlds—the assassins and the ensemble—collide, it’s kind of great,’ Schaeffer said. “Take Nova for instance, who is the lead in the song ‘Something Just Broke,’ which is a song that happens after Kennedy is assassinated and all of a sudden the country is not the same. It doesn’t matter if you liked the president or not. That view is really well represented in the song.”
Another highlight for Schaeffer involves the duo of Tracy Lynn Olivera and Rachel Zampelli playing the two women—Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, respectively—who separately tried to kill President Gerald Ford. He describes their scene together as incredibly funny.
“The interesting thing about this show is people hear the word ‘assassins’ and they think it’s going to be this dark, dreary thing, but what Sondheim and Weidman have done, and done really smartly, I like to say, is a series of ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketches,” Schaeffer said. “It’s all these different vignettes in different periods of time, but putting these people together…some are hysterically funny and some are not. The show hits all of these emotions, which is terrific.”
“Assassins,” he added, is a show where you will laugh and cry and have plenty to talk about as you leave the theater.