Come shoot a president’: Babcock takes on Sondheim’s musical ‘Assassins’

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What do the names Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangarra, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Frome, Sarah Jane Moore and John Hinckley have in common?

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of them. Most people haven’t.

Add in the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and you might start to understand who the other seven are.

History calls them assassins, but only three of them have actually succeeded in killing a president. Together, these nine people are at the center of the Babcock Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins,” directed by Sarah Shippobotham and opening Wednesday night.

“It certainly isn’t a traditional musical,” said Nicholas Dunn, who plays Booth in the show.

Don’t let the term ‘musical’ throw you. “This isn’t a song-and-dance, candy-coated musical with people ‘schmacting’,” says cast member Nick Bayne. “It’s…really a play set to music.”

The show is set in the time periods in which each assassination took place, fading in and out as one story concludes and the next begins. The set is reminiscent of a carnival shooting gallery with custom “presidential” targets and operated by a man who is simply known as the “Proprietor.”

He entices anyone who is “feeling blue,” bored of the mundane or, for whatever reason, unhappy, to “come shoot a president.”

“Everyone’s got the right to be happy. Everyone’s got the right to their dreams,” the Proprietor sings out.

As the show goes on, the audience is introduced to the story of each assassin and the motivations behind his or her desire to change the world with the little squeeze of a trigger.

Most stories are introduced by a guitar-strumming Balladeer, who acts as a narrator and commentator throughout the performance.

Booth-the show’s centerpiece and pioneer-steps in from time to time to act as the conscience of an assassin. He offers reasons why going through with the dastardly deed is good for America and even suggests going out and killing a president. In the case of Zangarra, who tried everything to cure his stomach ulcer, Booth suggests killing a president as a cure.

Despite its content, the production and cast will tell you that “Assassins” is not about telling people to assassinate a president.

“Assassination is not the answer,” said Shippobotham, “I think it’s trying to say ‘look at the American dream and how accessible (it) is.'”

The show reminds us that ultimately none of the assassins, except for Booth and Oswald, actually changed the world. What makes “Assassins” such a powerful show is its way of holding a magnifying glass to these men and women, allowing audience members to understand what each character wants and what leads them to their choices.

One the successes of “Assassins” is that, in its proceedings, it reveals that the desire to affect change in the world is a universal one, present in all people-even assassins.

“It’s not about portraying assassins. It’s about portraying real people,” said cast member Richard Wall.

It is also very much about power-who owns it, who has it and how the Average Joe can get it.

Much of the power in this show is behind a gun. As Charles Guiteau says, “When you’ve got a gun, everyone pays attention.”

Though it’s a musical about people who shot presidents, the amazing part isn’t that you are watching them sing about it, but that the characters make you compassionate, if not sympathetic, toward them.

“It’s about finding out why this person did what they did to achieve their dream,” said Bayne.

Shippobotham said that, for her, it was about getting her actors to find the truth of the person behind the assassin.

“It’s too easy to dismiss (the characters) as kooks. We’ve worked really hard to humanize them,” she said.

“Assassins” opens Nov. 9 and plays through Nov. 20.

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