A few weeks ago, while some people who want to be the next president of the United States were shouting at each other on TV, a group of presidential assassins gathered in a small rehearsal room, exchanging notes about their victims. An actor playing Sam Byck, who attempted to kill Richard Nixon in 1974, expressed his frustration that elections never seem to solve anything. "The Democrat says he'll fix everything—the Republicans fucked up. The Republican says he'll fix everything—the Democrats fucked up," he said, his voice rising. "Who do we believe? What do we do?"
He paused. "We do the only thing we can do." He went placid. "We kill the president."
A woman nearby, another actor, closed her eyes. Maybe she was remembering where she was on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Or maybe she was thinking about how she'll vote on November 8, 2016.
This was the first read through of Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim musical running through May 8 at ACT Theatre, produced in partnership with 5th Avenue Theatre. In Assassins, everyone from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley Jr. gets a chance to explain themselves: Some are driven by insanity, some by politics, some by a desire to be remembered. Their motives and circumstances vary, but their common bond is that they all grasped for power by taking shots at some of the most powerful men on earth.
ACT Theatre and 5th Avenue Theatre teamed up together last year to produce Little Shop of Horrors, which was fantastic. When they were mulling their joint programming for 2016, someone suggested Assassins, and ACT artistic director John Langs blurted, "Fuck yeah." He had only just recently accepted the artistic director job. "It was inappropriate," he said later, cringing. "I didn't know the guys that well. But I said, 'Fuck yeah'... and I still feel that way."
Before getting the opportunity to run ACT, Langs was a freelance director for 15 years. "You hardly ever get to choose the work you're doing [as a freelance director]," he said. "Someone else gets to choose it. I had a backpack full of projects coming into this job, and this was at the top of the list."
Word of their plans started to seep through Seattle's theater community, and eventually reached actor Louis Hobson. "I called [casting director] Margaret Layne that day and said, 'I don't care about any other show this season in Seattle. I just want to be in this show.'" Hobson will be playing John Wilkes Booth.
"He's such a complicated person," Hobson told me a few days after the first read through. "He's an actor. He's an activist. He was on the wrong side of history, supporting the Confederacy, but he believes strongly in what he wanted to defend... He truly believed he was trying to save the country. He truly believed Abraham Lincoln was tearing it apart."
At one point in the show, the Balladeer, a sort of narrator, sings to the assembled killers: "What if you never got to be president? You'll be remembered."
When I heard this line, sitting at the rehearsal, I wasn't sure at first whether it referred to the assassins or to our contemporary real-life candidates. The Iowa caucus had happened just two days earlier, and Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who never had a chance of winning, were in the process of ending what were essentially yearlong auditions for Fox News.
No matter when you hear the music of Assassins, it seems as though it was written for that exact moment. The show stares straight at you, unblinking, like the eyes of a creepy portrait.
And the American dream is like a phantom character hovering over everything—as it is in the current presidential campaign. "They're still selling it: 'Make America great again.' They're out there pitching it all the time," said Langs. "'If you elect me, I will make America great again, and that means you'll be able to obtain all of the things that America promised you. Just vote for me.' But what happens when someone young and impressionable puts all of their chips down on a candidate like Donald Trump, really leans in, and finds out ultimately there's no there there?"
As Hobson said, "Booth sings this whole song that the country's not what it was. And it reminds me very much of 'Make America great again,' this idea that he had to go back to another time when America was simpler... But Booth grew up on a farm with slaves, and he felt like that was reasonable."
The cast members of Assassins have an exhausting task ahead of them: identifying with killers, and trying to convince the audience to take their side, to have sympathy for their point of view.
"Aesthetically, she's just this housewife," says Kendra Kassebaum, who plays Gerald Ford attempted shooter Sara Jane Moore. "What is it inside of her that made her buy a gun and get to this point? How does this happen?... She just has this intense need to belong to something... Every time I'm entering, I'm trying to play with needing to be accepted, needing to matter, needing to not vanish amongst the suburbs."
John Coons plays Giuseppe Zangara, who came close to killing President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Zangara is a man who has never been told 'yes' his entire life," Coons said. "All he keeps hearing is 'no' from everyplace. He has no opportunities."
I asked if that was a difficult dimension of his character to access, and Coons shrugged. "I don't think there's a single starving artist out there who hasn't felt disenfranchised at some point."
A year ago, Coons found himself frustrated by the lack of roles available to him in Seattle and thought about quitting musical theater, but then an ACT casting director spotted him in a Eugene Opera production of Sweeney Todd. "That's the great American dream, the great American meritocracy right there," he laughed. "It took me not being in Seattle to get cast in Seattle. I wonder about some of these characters in the play. What if they had one opportunity? How would things have gone differently for them?"
Langs, the director, said, "I see myself in all of the characters. I think that's the job of any artist working on a piece... What are those feelings that the character is reflecting? What position would I have to be in to feel that? You have to keep asking 'Why?' like a 2-year-old, over and over again. 'Why, why, why?' And you get down to an answer that feels like the spine of the character."
He sighed: "It feels like crap some days."
One of the most arresting moments of the show is the song "Something Just Broke." In it, Americans sing about the moment they heard a president had been shot. "I remember where I was," they sing. "If only for a moment / I'll remember it forever."
Langs told me he was sitting in the first day of rehearsal listening to Kendra Kassebaum singing "Something Just Broke," a song she sang in the off-Broadway revival. "She opens her mouth to sing it, and I am in tears." He started to describe the moment, and then had to pause to collect himself.
"I'm feeling it right now. I imagine it right now, what it must be like to be driving down the road, past the book depository, and see her husband grab his throat, lean into his face to see if he's okay, and the next second for blood to be everywhere. And what a wife must feel like in that situation. I remembered myself on 9/11—I didn't know where my sister was. She lived at the corner of Church and Chambers. She called when the plane flew into the building. Something broke that day."
"The show is a meditation on the American dream," said Hobson. "It's America dreaming of itself, and that dream turns into a nightmare where the fatal flaw of the dream takes over, the idea that everybody has the right to be happy... that we all have the ability to go after what we want. But the truth of the matter is that not all of us do."