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ASSASSINS, the unsettling Steven Sondheim musical about presidential killers, just won't die.
The 1990 ground-breaker has never found a large audience of Americans willing to accept the message that everyone's right to be happy can include trying to murder the President of the United States. Assassins has also suffered from bad timing, opening during times of war. It debuted off-Broadway in late 1990 during the Gulf War and closed after 73 performances in part because it was accused of being anti-American. A Broadway production was scheduled for 2001 but was cancelled for three years in the aftermath of 9/11.
"It's never been successful," says Adam Brazier, director of a Toronto touring production that is serving as the centerpiece of SondheimFest, opening Thursday.
Assassins has found a more receptive audience north of the border, although it, too, had to overcome unfortunate opening days. Only hours before the Birdland Theatre/Talk is Free Theatre co-production was to kick off in Toronto on Jan. 8, 2011, U.S. House of Representatives member Gabrielle Gifford was shot in the head by a gunman who killed six others. The Winnipeg run again comes a month after Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut.
"It show that Assassins continues to be incredibly relevant," says Brazier, who will be familiar to RMTC-goers for his work in The 39 Steps and as Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. "It shows nothing has changed."
As outsiders, Canadian audiences can look at Sondheim's singing and dancing presidential killers -- John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Lee Harvey Oswald, et. al. -- without having to contemplate some ugly truths about their society.
"It's very difficult for Americans to look upon themselves and comment," says Brazier, who made his Broadway debut in a 2002 revival of Sondheim's Into the Woods. "They are afraid of seeing themselves and their inherent violent nature. I think their economy is driven by violence and war and therefore driven by guns.
"They only want to believe they are right, they only want to see the good in themselves. This show takes the American Dream and calls it out."
Brazier says a true democracy is defined by action and policy, and when it comes to gun control there has been little action and no policy.
"It's a society that's based on fear," he says. "We see it as outsiders."
Sondheim has never been afraid to tackle some unlikely subjects in his musicals. Sweeney Todd was a murderous barber but he upped his killer count in Assassins, which may be his most socially conscious piece.
"Sondheim may seem intimidating to people who haven't done it or are used to Cats," says Brazier. "I've never found Sondheim difficult. It just makes perfect sense to me."
The Free Press News Cafe will host a wide-ranging discussion about the themes of Assassins along with a three-course dinner Thursday at 6 p.m. For reservations call 204-942-6537.
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse
Opens Thursday, to Feb. 2
Tickets: $20-$43.50 at www.mtc.mb.ca