If I had a meeting with a Broadway producer and pitched a revue-style musical about the real-life men and women who assassinated (or tried to assassinate) Presidents of the United States they’d probably toss me to the curb and tell me to keep my day job. When Stephen Sondheim pitched that idea to a theatrical impresario he or she immediately responded: “When do you want rehearsals to start?"
Who knows if that’s what really happened but Sondheim is the man and he can do just about anything he wants to do when it comes to musical theater. That includes writing the music and lyrics for a show about those who’ve attempted to murder, or successfully murdered, U.S. Presidents. Assassins premiered Off-Broadway on Dec. 18, 1990 (just in time for Christmas). It closed 73 performances later on Feb. 16, 1991. The cast included some heavy hitters like Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, and Debra Monk. An Assassins production opened in London in October of 1992 and was directed by Sam Mendes. It ran for 76 performances.
Assassins was bound for Broadway in 2001 but the terror attacks of September 11 pushed it back to 2004. The musical ran 101 times at Studio 54 before closing on July 18, 2004. The cast included Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris. The latter won a Tony Award for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth. Each of the aforementioned productions presented a different version of Assassins although the 2004 Broadway revival is considered the definitive edition.
The 2004 production of Assassins won five Grammy Awards including Best Revival of a Musical. Even though Assassins hadn’t run on Broadway its first go-around in New York City, the powers-that-be deemed that the 2004 version was indeed a revival.
Characters in Assassins include Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Squeaky Fromme. When asked about the backlash he might receive from a musical about such infamous murderers, Sondheim explained that there will always be people who believe certain subjects are taboo for the theater. Even so, he refused to apologize for Assassins: “Nowadays, virtually everything goes.”