OMTA’s “Assassins” Balances Levity, Seriousness


Photo by Bryan Rubin, Photo editor

Cast members in the Oberlin Musical Theater Association’s production of Assassins rehearse for the show, which portrays several people who attempted — successfully or otherwise — to assassinate presidents of the United States. The musical opened yesterday in Wilder Main and runs through Saturday.

When the legendary Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman first debuted Assassins in 1990, it was one of the most controversial musicals in recent history. The musical compiles its character list from the select community of historical figures connected to the assassinations and attempted assassinations of U.S. presidents. Several easily recognizable characters include Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot and killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963; Samuel Joseph Byck, who attempted to hijack a 747 and crash it into the White House during Richard Nixon’s presidency; and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore — the only two women to ever attempt to murder a U.S. president — who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975. These people and many more will make appearances in the Oberlin Musical Theater Association’s production of the show, which opened yesterday and runs through Saturday in Wilder Main.

The assassins and their associates gather on stage to express their discontent and, at times, to encourage one another to carry out their plans. The production toes a sensitive line in the exploration of its characters’ motives, and while those motives are never romanticized, it’s no small wonder the show’s premise raises eyebrows.

“It’s never the right time to put on the show, and it’s always the right time to put on the show,” said College junior Jacob Maximilian Baron, who is co-directing Assassins with College junior Henry DuBeau.

DuBeau stumbled upon the original cast recording of Assassins during his first year at Oberlin and quickly fell in love with the musical. Its non-site-specific nature gives it a degree of flexibility, and DuBeau hoped it would speak to the pervasive political tension on and off campus.

“I thought it would be well received,” DuBeau said. “At the time it was spring 2015, and people had heard of Donald Trump, but that whole thing wasn’t happening yet. Still, political polarization was very prevalent, and I thought this would be a nice way to tap into that energy.”

Baron had already discussed the possibility of bringing Assassins to campus with Alex Ngo, the head of OMTA, by the time he and DuBeau met. Baron and DuBeau subsequently decided to share the role of director, and even though their perspectives occasionally diverge, their working relationship has been both positive and productive.

“A really interesting dynamic is that I’m a Theater major and Jacob is a Cinema Studies major,” Dubeau said. “The ways in which we view this [production] have differed, but in the end, they complement each other.”

Baron and DuBeau aim to tackle the many challenges Assassins presents with a sense of play and creativity, while keeping a critical eye on how morally questionable themes are conveyed.

“I think the reason that [Assassins] presents the content in such a way, is to … handle it with ‘kid gloves,’” DuBeau said. “To represent [the material] in a one-dimensional or two-dimensional kind of framework doesn’t … honor … what it’s trying to portray. A lot of people will be like, ‘I really empathize with this character. Maybe not completely, or wholesale, but for a lot of reasons I see what’s going on.’”

According to Baron, Assassins contrasts the dark themes of its subject matter and its largely light-hearted portrayal of the characters to create contradictory feelings in its audience.

“It’s entertaining to a limit,” Baron said. “It’s funny to a limit, digestible to a limit. The whole point of the show is that there’s also this thing on the other side of that limit that’s dark, and it’s not easy to swallow it. … The genius part of the show is that it mixes [these aspects] so cohesively that you can’t ignore either side of it. You can’t go in and say, ‘None of that was funny,’ or … ‘None of that was dark and horribly tragic.’”

College first-year Gabe Strasburger, who plays the character of John Wilkes Booth, finds room within the musical to sympathize with these misguided and antagonistic characters without exonerating them from their actions. For example, “The Ballad of Booth,” which they sing with College sophomore Alex Scheitinger, the production’s Balladeer, is one of the musical’s many heartfelt moments, capturing the genuine bitterness and loss experienced by the post-Civil War South.

“I think that [Assassins] does a really interesting study of the central themes of the American Dream and the contradictions which are inherent therein,” Strasburger said. “I think a lot of the things that are fascinating about this musical is that it deals with all these incredibly heavy themes and most of the characters are just bad people — they’re whackjobs, they’re full of hatred — and yet through the music, we come to sympathize with them because there are these incredible, hopeful, sentimental sad tunes.”

These sentiments are grounded in the historical realities these figures inhabited. In researching the origins and circumstances of their character, Strasburger came across a lot of painful history to illustrate where Booth was coming from.

“In the year 1865, the South ran out of black clothing because there was so much death and destruction that the demand of mourners outstripped the supply,” Strasburg said. “The South was fighting for a repugnant cause — they were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery — but there’s also very genuine loss. It was a war that pitted brother against brother.”

According to College junior Heather Freed Loschen, who plays Sara Jane Moore, the musical can be interpreted in a number of ways. At first, she saw it as a play about violence unleashed through a sense of unfulfilled entitlement, but her perspective has shifted over time.

“Now that I’m older and have some more understanding about America’s structure, I can see … that [these characters] have been told over and over again that they can have everything they want by being in America, and they are very upset that that lie is being told,” Loschen said.

College senior Ari Heitler-Klevans plays Leon Czolgosz, an American anarchist and disgruntled factory worker who assassinated President William McKinley. For him, while Assassins explores the motivations of its obsessed and violent characters, it also shows how violence ultimately solves nothing for the dissatisfied parties.

“I think that a lot of how the musical explores the various complex themes is through a combination of witty songs that point you to the specific motivations — or point to how society perceives these individuals and how that affects these individuals — and also through these very poignant conversations between these characters,” Heitler-Klevans said. “It looks at some of the problems of our society and how these [violent] individuals decided that violence would be the best solution. I personally think that a lot of their motivations are understandable, if not acceptable.”

OMTA’s Assassins opened yesterday evening. Additional performances are scheduled for Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Wilder Main. Tickets are available for $3 in advance from the Wilder Hall information desk and $5 at the door.