One of the characters in Stephen Sondheim ’s “Assassins” is Emma Goldman, the noted early 20th-century anarchist. She was also a character in the musical “Ragtime.”
“I feel as though I’ve learned more about Emma Goldman from musical theater than I ever did from history books,” said Rick Kerby.
Kerby’s the producing artistic director of the Manatee Performing Arts Center, and he’s directing the upcoming Manatee Players production of “Assassins.” It opens today in Stone Hall at the performing arts center.
He may have been exaggerating a bit about how much he has learned about Goldman from two musicals, but he was trying to make a point that part of the appeal of “Assassins” is that it’s a well-researched history lesson.
The central characters are all people who were killed or tried to kill American presidents. (Goldman was arrested for conspiring with Leon Czolgosz in the assassination of William McKinley, but was never charged.)
Sondheim and John Weidmanm, who wrote the musical’s book, did their homework, Kerby said, and the actors in the Manatee Players production all did their own research into their characters.
We’re kind of known for Sondheim around here. Five years ago I might not have even suggested this show to our board. I think we’ve earned the right to do this show.
Brian Chunn plays John Wilkes Booth, and what most of us believe about Booth, he said, is inaccurate. Booth was not, he said, a rabid secessionist.
“He was totally in love with the union,” Chunn said, “and in his mind Lincoln was responsible for breaking it apart.”
In fact, director Kerby said, most of the assassins portrayed in the show were patriots, and a lot of people in the audience will agree with their concerns, though not their methods.
There are others though, who are motivated by mental illness or something like it. Squeaky Fromme, one of two women who tried to kill Gerald Ford, was a Charles Manson devotee, and John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in order to impress actress Jodie Foster.
Some of the assassins portrayed in the show are infamous, including Booth, Hinckley, Fromme and Lee Harvey Oswald. Others, including Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau and Samuel Byck are more obscure. Guiteau murdered James A. Garfield and Byck tried to highjack a place and crash it into the White House while Richard Nixon was inside.
Of course, it’s a musical, not just a history lesson. Sondheim’s music is dense and complex, as it often is, and none of the songs are likely to be familiar to people who haven’t seen the show. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the music is that each song has a flavor of the assassin’s era. “The Ballad of Booth” is bluegrass-tinged, and “Unworthy of Your Love,” sung by Fromme and Hinckley, is more of a contemporary pop number.
It’s a challenging show for both audiences and performers. It’s kind of a bold choice, as it may not attract audiences who prefer Manatee Players’s signature style of musical, which is bright and flashy.
On the other hand, Manatee Players have always fared well with Sondheim musicals, including last year’s “Into the Woods,” so Kerby is hoping audiences will be open for one of his more substantial works.
“We’re kind of known for Sondheim around here,” he said. “Five years ago I might not have even suggested this show to our board. I think we’ve earned the right to do this show.”
Details: Oct. 27-Nov. 13, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $27-$37. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.