THEATRE / On target: Paul Taylor on Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at the Donmar Warehouse

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'EVERYONE Needs Opera' proclaim those ENO posters in the Underground, an assertion that is palpable nonsense. ('Homeless? Hey, Here's a snatch of Akhnaten . . .') In the last few weeks, for reasons that will be evident to readers of this page, I've felt the strong urge to go round adding stickers that ask: 'But Who Needs New Musicals?' Now, putting a stop to such thoughts, along comes Stephen Sondheim's marvellous Assassins, the British premiere of which proves an auspicious opening for Sam Mendes' regime at the handsomely refurbished Donmar Warehouse. Fittingly for the venue, it's a focused chamber piece, but in every important respect (dramatic punch; incisive musical and lyrical intelligence; cunning control of irony etc), it dwarfs the elephantine, muddle-headed hulks of 'product' recently unveiled in the West End.

'Everybody's /Got the right / To some sunshine. /Not the sun / But maybe one / Of its beams': these could be the sentiments of any high-kicking Broadway showstopper. Here, there's a creepy difference. The gun-toting chorus line is composed of nine people who have used the President of the United States for target practice, from John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Lincoln in 1865 to John Hinckley who, in 1981, attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan. Bizarre to find such folk in a musical? At first, yes, but the evening convinces you that there is a dark, comic justice in allowing them to annex this genre.

The musical has traditionally promoted the values of the American Dream. As one of the songs here ironically declares, 'In the USA / You can work your way / To the head of the line'. Triumphant self-assertion ('This time for me, / For me] / For me]' as Rose sings, to Sondheim's lyrics, in Gypsy) is a condition to which the form regularly aspires. For Sondheim and Assassin's book- writer John Weidman, the diverse collection of aggrieved no-hopers, crazies and thwarted idealists who gather in the temporal no- man's land of a fairground shooting gallery, simply take the American Dream to an extreme and in so doing expose it as a lie. Impotent but with a rankling sense of entitlement, they take a desperate shot at fame.

As Mendes makes plain, Assassins is a lot more than sociology- with-songs. It's a piece that's acutely aware of how music is a carrier of myth. Put through haunting and subversive modulations of style, the patriotic 'Hail to the Chief' threads its way through the evening. Pointed pastiches (from hillybilly ballad to the insane optimism of Henry Newman's perky cakewalk up and down the scaffold as the condemned Charles Guiteau, to a slurpy Carpenters-like number Michael Cantwell, as Hinckley, sings to his beloved Jodie Foster) make you aware that though the singers think they are engaged in self-expression, they are, in fact, trapped in one national costume or another. (There's even some sardonic self- reference. One nut is heard singing 'I like to be in America / OK by me in America': lyric by S Sondheim.) The one song that has been added to this British production (a chorus explore their remembered feelings at the news of Kennedy's death) is the only point where inverted commas completely disappear, though I was left unsure whether this represented the triumph of direct feeling in the show or a sudden failure of nerve.

From the politicians' rosettes in the mordant form of targets to the two fat, easily poppable balloons that epitomise President McKinley, Mendes' marvellously uncluttered production helps unify the various case studies the piece presents by remaining true to the out-of-time fairground feel you get at the beginning. When assassins past and future implore a hesitant Lee Harvey Oswald (Gareth Snook) to give their lives renewed meaning by killing Kennedy, a grisly Grand Tradition of assassins is adumbrated. This idea pulls the piece together at the price of a faint sentimentality. Unlike some of these would-be killers, and unlike the excellent musical at moments, this inaugural production takes perfect aim.

(Photograph omitted)