For Signature Theatre and its artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, the end of this long summer means a head start on its 30th anniversary season, a celebration of sorts for the little theater (in the beginning) that became one of the most outstanding companies in the country, focusing on new works as well as the changing world of the musical theater.
With the celebratory nature of the season, you might think that Schaeffer and company would have opened with something safe and fun, maybe “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” that would have you coming out whistling and dancing.
But no. That wouldn’t be Signature’s, well, signature.
Signature, which made its early theatrical bones with the Stephen Sondheim startler “Sweeney Todd,” and is known as a kind of church of Sondheim productions, will open its 30th anniversary season with its 30th production of a Sondheim work: “Assassins”.
A musical exploration of “a twisted American dream” by way of a carnival-style journey through the lives of president-killers, successful and otherwise, “Assassins” is a work Signature and Schaeffer first explored in 1992. This production will run from Aug. 11 to Sept. 29.
In an Aug. 2 telephone interview, Schaeffer said the work remains a musical that’s as “pertinent and contemporary as it was when it was first performed.
“I’ve directed the work three times myself, and it’s always a different but intense experience,” he said. “It changes with time, all works do, but it echoes today. We thought, given the nature of our times — with its divisions, its intense atmosphere and politically charged climate over issues like immigration — that it’s the right time to do that.”
“One of the things that the play explores and what we want to explore is why people do the things they do. Why did these men — and two women — do or try to do what they did? What drove them to the point of acting as they did? In a way, the play is a rediscovery for us, the company, and it remains timeless.”
Just a day after we spoke, 20 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, and the following day nine more people were killed in Dayton, acts that, like presidential assassinations, reverberate mightily across the country. In fact, on one of those ritualistic Sunday-morning talk shows, one panelist, discussing blame for the shootings, brought up the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, who, of course, is one of the principal characters in “Assassins”.
First staged in 1990, “Assassins” is a late work by Sondheim, now 89, who is the core in the now-30-year history of Signature. In subject matter, music and style, it is an example of just how far Sondheim took the musical genre from its Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe and even Cole Porter strains.
This production of “Assassins” will be different, according to Schaeffer, but also familiar, bringing a large cast of Signature regulars to take on some of the darker, infamous historical figures in American history.
“That’s part of the celebration, to have people who have worked here before, who are part of our family,” Schaeffer said. These include Evan Casey as John Hinckley, Vincent Kempski as John Wilkes Booth, Sam Ludwig as Lee Harvey Oswald, Ian McEuen as Giuseppe Zangara, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Sara Jane Moore, Lawrence Redmond as Leon Czolgosz, Bobby Smith as Charles Guiteau, Christopher Bloch as Samuel Byck and Rachel Zampelli as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who was a member of the Manson family. Fromme and Moore at different times tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
“Shows, especially musicals, change over time. The emotional content changes, and the audiences change too,” Schaeffer said. “Nothing remains the same.”