In a season of Sondheim, an innovative ‘Assassins’ at the Arden comes first

Pictured are Miles Jacoby as John Wilkes Booth and Robi Hager as Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald in Arden Theatre Company’s ‘Assassins’.
Ashley Smith/Wide Eyed Studios

Lionized during his lifetime, the musical theatrical wonder of Stephen Sondheim has grown even more epic since his 2021 death. Vocally polyphonic, melodically adventurous, thematically lyrical tied to notions of alienation and despair, Sondheim was – is – the modern American musical personified.

And while Broadway and Off-Broadway celebrates Sondheim this autumn with ‘Sweeney Todd’, his last, new, posthumous work, ‘Here We Are’, and a revival of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre starts the ball rolling, this week, with its highly original, Philly-cast production of ‘Assassins’.

Initially, not loved by critics or audiences during its 1990 Off-Broadway debut, the carnival-game-inspired tale of famous Presidential assassins — music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by John Weidman — the musical won five Tony Awards when revived for Broadway in 2004. The Arden’s first production of ‘Assassins’ in 2007 (with Philly thespian Scott Greer, then and now) was magical, one of this city’s most memorable staged productions.

“’Assassins’ tells individual historical stories, but is also the story of our country which has changed so much since 2007 when we first produced the show,” said Terrence J. Nolen, ‘Assassins’ director and the Arden’s Producing Artistic Director. “With this production, we wanted it to take place right here, right now. So hopefully the way the past and present connect and collide are exciting. The focus for both productions was to bring together an extraordinary group of artists to bring the piece to life… they make Sondheim’s score soar.”

Among the extraordinary artists making ‘Assassins’ score is returning Arden actors Monica Horan as gunwoman Sara Jane Moore and Robi Hager as the musical’s Balladeer and JFK killer Lee Harvey Oswald.

While Hager’s Balladeer is an outsider and not part of the killer elite, the Oswald character allows the actor to tap into history’s most famous assassin’s weaknesses, fears, highs and lows.

“Everything that makes him human so that when I meet the rest of the assassins, I can let them be my guide and let go in a way,” Hager said, adding that working with Nolen helped in that letting go process. “I’m so inspired by his vision…the risks he takes. It makes it so easy to bring my fullest self to the piece. The clarity that he brings to the story and the rehearsal room allows us to immediately become a part of his vision.”

Horan, who worked with Nolen and the Arden on their 2017 production of ‘Gypsy’, was completely intimidated by the thought of doing any Sondheim, let alone a complex and difficult piece like ‘Assassins’.

“Sondheim is a heavy lift even for artists that identify as ‘singers’ and ‘musicians,’” she said. “Working on this music, I discovered that the genius of Sondheim lies in the fact that the music, while complex, provides a road map to the comedy, emotion, and connection what is happening on stage in every moment. Every note, every lyric is in service of the story.”

What’s most sly about Sondheim’s take on his ‘Assassins’ is his refusal to either sympathize or villainize his killers. How Horan plays to that writing is as complex as Sondheim’s writing.

“The people we’re portraying are complex and tragic—unstable in dark and destructive ways,” Horan said. “But no matter how devastating the acts an individual/individuals commit may be, we share a common reality that, under different mental and circumstantial conditions, we are all vulnerable to experiencing the worst humanity has to offer, just as we are privileged to experience the best that humanity has to offer.”

As Sondheim and Weidman expressed: “these murderers and would-be murderers are dismissed as maniacs and misfits who have little in common with each other, nothing in common with the rest of us.”

“‘Assassins’ suggests otherwise.  ‘Assassins’ says that while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar, taken as a group, they are peculiarly American. That behind the variety of motives which they articulated for their murderous outbursts; they share a common impulse.  A desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”

Horan and Nolen both remind us that ‘Assassins’ is actually, a musical comedy.

“Dark comedy, perhaps, but the wit and genius of Sondheim and Weidman, coupled with a hugely talented cast, provide big laughs—humor is an excellent delivery system for challenging information, no?” quizzes Horan.

“Working on ‘Assassins’, I am constantly reminded how brilliant it is. And prescient in an astonishing way. Sondheim refused to repeat himself, he was always pushing the boundaries of what musical theatre could be and what stories they could tell,” noted Nolen. “Sondheim said that of all the musicals he wrote, ‘Assassins’ came closest to fulfilling what he, along with Weidman, set out to do. It is truly a remarkable piece.”

Assassins‘ is on stage at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, now through Oct. 22.