The Road Company stages Sondheim's 'Assassins' in Williamstown
“There's another national anthem, folks,/ For those who never win,/ For the suckers, for the pikers,/ For the ones who might have been .../ There are those who love regretting,/ There are those who like extremes,/ There are those who thrive on chaos/ And despair./ There are those who keep forgetting/ How the country's built on dreams …” – From “Another National Anthem,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” Stephen Sondheim is best known in American pop culture for a few hit songs, in particular, “Send in the Clowns.” But Sondheim’s true claim to fame is as the composer-lyricist who can make a riveting musical from virtually anything.
Consider: “Sweeney Todd” (1979) tells the story of a homicidal maniac. “Follies” (1971) uses a couple of unhappy marriages as a metaphor for postwar America. “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) sends escapees from a mental hospital onto the streets of Smalltown, USA. “Into the Woods” (1987) explores the dark side of fairytales. But none of these tops “Assassins” (1990), a phantasmagoric show showcasing nine actual or would-be assassins of American presidents.
Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr., with a script by John Weidman, “Assassins” is not a history lesson, by any means, and isn’t intended to be. It’s a wild carousel ride where John Wilkes Booth gives a pep talk to Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley and Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme share a duet, where Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz get to tell us why they targeted Garfield and McKinley. Some are plainly crazy, others wrap themselves in the flag of their politics and personal grievances.
“Assassins” doesn’t condemn and it doesn’t excuse. What it offers theater-goers is the opportunity to ponder the reasons why people turn to violence, the ways the American Dream sometimes turns into the American Nightmare. In her book, “Art Isn’t Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim,” Joanne Gordon writes that with “Assassins,” Sondheim “confronts pain in order to cauterize the decay and heal the sicknesses which lurk at the core of our society.” He does this using every trick in theater’s book -- song, dance, comedy, spectacle – and a score that ranges brilliantly across American musical styles, from minstrel ballads and barbershop to bluegrass and Broadway.
The Road Company Theatre Group in Williamstown (Monroe Township, Gloucester County) is opening an 11-performance run of “Assassins” on Sept. 12 in its home—the historic Grand Theatre, built in 1924, rebuilt and reopened in February 2013 following three years dark after a roof collapse. Road Company hit the ground running with “Hairspray,” then presented youth company productions of “Aladdin” and “Legally Blonde.” Now “Assassins.” And “Gypsy” will be arriving Oct. 24.
“Assassins” is a stretch for a community theater organization, which is one of the reasons director Suzanne Baldino-Jones wanted to do it. She likes a challenge. Road Company has mounted productions of such tough shows as “Urinetown” and “Jekyll and Hide,” and “Gypsy” surely will be no walk in the park, either. Also, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November.
“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” says Baldino-Jones, “and I was alive when JFK was assassinated. It affected me a lot, the loss of innocence. I became politically involved because of it. When I direct now, I choose shows that touch me, shows I feel I’m going to get personal value out of. ‘Assassins’ is a very moving show, and hard to do because it’s not a traditional musical that tells a story in chronological order. I think Sondheim didn’t want to be stuck in a particular (historical) period. He wanted more breadth. So the show takes place in a theatrical limbo. To highlight this, our production will have the nine assassins present in every scene.”
A theater graduate of Rowan University, Baldino-Jones, who is cofounder of a financial services firm, has been directing Road Company and other theater groups for decades, and has a slew of shows under her belt. She set out to become an actress, she says, but accepted early on that she “wasn’t good enough or talented enough for a serious career, but I could teach it, and I could do some directing. Around that time, in 1976, my mother (the late Julie Speeney, whom Road Company remembers as a one-woman dynamo) founded the company. She chose the name because the company was on the road all the time; we had no home base then. She told me, ‘You’re coming here to work. You’re going to direct the shows. That’s what you’re going to do.’ I said, ‘What?,’ then took some directing courses and jumped in. I learned by doing.”
Road Company has built its reputation on productions that keep bringing audiences back and on youth education programs, such as its summer camp. The troupe’s vision is quality theater and community service. Basing itself at the Grand Theatre in 1990, Road Company realized a dream by achieving the wherewithal to purchase the Grand—originally a vaudeville venue—in 2008. In 2010, the Grand’s weakened roof was brought down by the previous winter’s snow load, leaving only the front of the building intact.
“Getting the building back up was three years of a very hard road,” says Lauri Hudson, the Grand’s board president, but coordinated efforts by insurers, architects, contractors and community supporters resulted in the construction of “a beautiful, intimate theater, with a higher proscenium and a bigger (orchestra) pit. We’re just enjoying being in this space.” The Grand reopened with a sold-out gala in February.
Ms. Hudson, an attorney, is herself a Road Company veteran who got involved as a teenager and “fell in love with the organization. There’s a family atmosphere here, and lots of opportunity to learn. I’ve done just about everything – onstage, backstage, lights, costumes – but I never thought I’d end up as president,” she says with a laugh.
“Our main goal is to educate and have a venue for nonprofessional actors and musicians to hone skills. We provide a forum for people who just love the arts and have great talent. They come back time and time again. People are amazed by the quality of our shows. It’s amazing the talent we get. All I can say is, come see us,” Hudson says.
Road Company draws its audience from the surrounding communities and farther afield, according to Hudson, and has received support from Verizon and Boeing through matching grants, but “private donations is the biggest item in our support profile, from one-on-one relationships, from families. We have a strong board. We’re all committed to rebuilding our base.”
Suzanne Baldino-Jones says that Road Company’s strategy is to win audience’s hearts and minds with good productions of the musical standards that people know and want to see, “then because they know the quality we present, they’re ready to take a chance on a show like ‘Assassins.’ We were the first theater group in South Jersey to do ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ and we had no idea whether anybody would want to come see it. We sold out almost every night.” New and challenging productions also attract highly motivated talent, she says, including volunteer actors and musicians who have had professional training and experience in their background.
“We have a different environment here than you find in North Jersey, I think,” Baldino-Jones says. “Philadelphia does not have the same pull here that New York City has on North Jersey. Road Company is not competing against Philadelphia shows. Our audience base is people who are not accustomed to going to the theater, but once you get them here—often because of their kids—they discover that they like it, and they start coming. What’s been beautiful is that we know our audience has been waiting to come back to the Grand. Once you’ve got that, everything becomes possible.”
The “Assassins” production team includes Collin Maier, music director, conducting the pit ensemble; Paula Farrar, set designer; Leslie Romanuski and Rebecca Schaser, costumes, and Steve Pracilio, light designer. It’s a large cast, with Josh Bessinger portraying Oswald, and doubling as The Balladeer, Eric Cecilioi as Booth, and Sean Casey and Ed Farrell sharing the role of The Proprietor.
The Road Company Theater Group’s “Assassins” at the Grand Theatre, 405 S. Main St., Williamstown, runs Thursdays through Sundays, Sept. 12-Sept. 22, and Sept. 26, 27 and 28, www.roadcompany.com, 856-728-2120.
For more background on “Assassins,” visit www.sondheimguide.com/assassins.html.