Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed, and somewhat controversial musical, Assassins comes to Dublin this December courtesy of director and Rough Magic SEED, Ronan Phelan. Meg sat down with two of the actors (and singers and dancers) Erica Murray and Claire Barrett to chat conspiracy theories and the dark side of the American dream….
Firstly, tell me more about Assassins.
Claire: ‘It’s a musical theatre piece about nine assassins who, throughout history, have attempted or succeeded in killing an American president. It may sound bleak but is told in a very fast-paced, funny and energetic style.’
Erica: ‘It is set in a type of limbo that allows all of the assassins to be on stage at once, but yet also spans a huge period of history. So you have John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln alongside our characters who emerged in the sixties and seventies. Of course, that allows for great comedy.’
Erica has recently returned from touring with the hugely successful Life and Death of Eric Argyle and Claire is a staple of the Irish theatre scene, delighting audiences in I Heart Alice Heart I and The Government Inspector, amongst others. What drew them to their roles in Assassins?
Claire: ‘Not any sense of achievement anyway as I think it’s safe to say both our characters are failures. I play Sarah Jane Moore who attempted to shoot Gerald Ford. I think of her as this very intelligent woman but with a squirrel type attention span. She was a double-agent for the FBI and well educated but seemingly couldn’t commit to anything. She was deranged, I believe. She wanted the world to see ‘where she was coming from’, which is a common aspiration of all the assassins in the play. It is a very strong character piece.’
Erica: I play Manson cult member Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme who was known for her devotion to the Family. She also tried to shoot President Ford but suffered the added embarrassment of her gun not being loaded. She claimed environmental reasons but I think it was desperation. The Family had disbanded and people were stopping her from seeing Charles Manson. No-one was listening to her and she wanted to make them listen. To play someone on the edge is always fascinating.’
Do all the assassins share this desire to be heard?
Claire: ‘Definitely. All of them had a point, a reason for what they did, however inaccessible or psychotic. It is interesting earlier in history, the assassins seem to cite social justice or political reasons. As time progresses it is less about the act itself and more about the lone gunman and his or her own personal reasons.’
Do you think the media has a part to play in that?
Erica: ‘A huge part. It’s like the assassins figured out a way to get the whole world to look at them. The cult of celebrity is somewhat to blame, but also the American ideology. There is a line ‘Everybody has the right to their dreams’ and I think that, in part, sums up the play. If you are brought up to believe you can be whoever you want to be there comes a certain frustration when you can’t escape your circumstances and that anger gets directed at powerful and influential figures. They think, ‘It should be me up there’ and the hatred grows.’
From Alice in Funderland to The Threepenny Opera Irish musical-lovers have been spoilt in the last few years. Why do you think that is?
Erica: ‘Well, the obvious reason is people like to be entertained but I think musicals are a smart way to explore society in an exciting and multi-layered way. It would be easy to do a play like Assassins ‘straight,’ but the darkness and the humour is what will really engage the audience. It is certainly more challenging.’
Assassins was postponed on Broadway in light of 9/11. Why do you think that was?
Claire: ‘I can understand that. After such a traumatic event the last thing the American public probably wanted to see was a satirical musical where the cast points guns at the audience. It opened a few years later and went on to have a successful run because people realised it was much more than casual caricature, aiming to be controversial for the sake of controversy. When you see Assassins you realise it is holding a mirror up to society and playing on our present fears and vulnerabilities in a shockingly clever way.
Erica: I just returned from doing Eric Argyle in New York and it is amazing how conservative certain audiences can be. One evening, before the show started, I heard two elderly women giving out about ‘cussing’ in the theatre. Of course, every time a bad word was said after that all I could do was look into the audience and see these two little old ladies frowning up at me.’
Oh dear. Hopefully they won’t go to Assassins. I recently watched Oliver Stone’s JFK film. If my parents had a basement I might considering going home and spending the rest of my days there reading various conspiracies. Does Assassins touch on any of those theories?
Claire: I’m sorry to disappoint but as it includes such a wealth of characters there is little time for conspiracies. It does however explore perspective and the idea of history as unreliable. It’s impossible to say how a thing exactly happened because what you say will never be exact.
Erica: Ronan did a lot of research for this production and it is unbelievable how much information is out there and how the different accounts vary. It is probably easy to fall down the rabbit-hole and let your imagination run away with you!
09 December 2013 9.15pm
Previews 05-07 December (9.15pm)
Matinee 14 December 3.15pm