There’s a lyric near the beginning of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” where a question is posed to John Wilkes Booth, the man most famous for killing President Abraham Lincoln.
“Why did you do it, Johnny?” the song intones. “What made you bring a nation to its knees?”
That simple line neatly sums up the whole show, which opens tonight at the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene. In a series of vignettes, Sondheim assembles fictionalized versions of real presidential assassins, some successful and some not, and examines what drove each of them to violence.
“These are the stories of people who said, ‘If nobody else is going to do something, I’m going to do something, and this is the only way people will listen to me,’ ” said the show’s director, Abbey Crawford. “These are the stories that have changed the fabric of America.”
But “Assassins” isn’t a straightforward historical piece. It plays out in an impressionistic variety-show style, and it’s set in what resembles a circus sideshow. A couple of carnival barkers serve as our tour guides, and they also function as a dueling angel and devil on each character’s shoulders: The Proprietor (played by Joseph Hall) supplies everyone with guns, while the Balladeer (Brenden Brady) tries to dissuade them from using those weapons.
Along with Booth (Daniel J. Bell), there’s Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot President John F. Kennedy from a book depository building in Texas. There’s Leon Czolgosz (Jesse Hampsch), a Polish immigrant who killed President William McKinley in 1901 because he believed the government was taking advantage of the poor. Charles Guiteau (Matt Gerard), an aspiring politician, assassinated President James Garfield when he wasn’t appointed French ambassador.
Each assassin gets his or her own scene, and each one lays out his or her personal or political motive. Typical of Sondheim, many of the songs possess a darkly comic streak: There’s a dual romantic ballad titled “Unworthy of Your Love” during which John Hinckley (Shawn Hunt) proclaims his devotion to Jodie Foster (he shot President Ronald Reagan to get her attention) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Aubree Peterson) pines for cult leader Charles Manson.
“It’s dark and it’s funny, and there are moments where you cry because you’re thinking, ‘Why do these people still feel like they need to do this?’ ” Crawford said. “There’s some crazy that’s happening here. … But I think every human has the (potential) to become that little bit of crazy where you think there’s nothing else you can do.”
Sondheim doesn’t condone what the assassins have done; he merely wants to understand them. In the song “Another National Anthem,” all of his characters explain their actions: No one would listen to them, no one cared about them, they wanted to send a message and they feel totally justified.
Crawford, who played Fromme in Civic Theatre’s 2007 production of “Assassins,” says the show is as fascinating and funny as it is tragic. It’s about tenacious yet irrational people who chased after the American dream and encountered nothing but frustrations and broken promises along the way.
“By the end of the show, you’re going to almost want to be on the side of the assassins,” she said. “It’s Stephen Sondheim’s interpretation of the human condition. … It’s draining and glorious and haunting and crazy.”