Killing Time: 'Assassins' takes a look back at history’s most famous murders

Heritage Theatre is taking a dark turn with Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, diving into the minds of famous assassins across history.

It is definitely a dark comedy, very dark,” said Director and Choreographer Krista Pennington. “The show uses the premise of a carnival to tell the story, where all of the assassins are together and receive their guns as part of a game.”

Each assassin sings an autobiographical song in the style that would have been popular for the time period the assassination or murderous attempt actually took place. Some of the perpetrators represented include Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Giuseppe Zangara, to name a few.

Although the show does include some fiction, the parts that are historically accurate are right on point, according to Pennington.

“The detail in the script and score is tremendous,” she said. “Obviously, these people didn't know each other in real life, but the way it's written is really interesting. In the show, Charles J. Guiteu teaches Sara Jane Moore how to shoot and Squeaky Fromme spends time in John Hinkley's parent's basement with him going through tapes. There is a lot of space for the characters to discuss motivations, their past and encourage each other.”

Incredible, detailed music supports the script. Composed by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, the score proves to be tricky, but in a good way. 

“Each show is unique, no matter what. They're never the same, which is a wonderful thing,” Pennington said. “Every actor brings something different to a role.”

Another challenge Pennington has faced with this show is the use of guns, which is currently a very politically charged topic in our society.

“There are 11 guns total, which is a lot, and they are very important to the show,” Pennington said. “This show is going to start a conversation, without a doubt. In our current climate, the guns make a big statement all on their own. I imagine people will leave this show thinking, which is good.”

On that note, Pennington rates the show an “R” for language, as well as the portrayal of murders and executions. 

“I wanted to do this musical because of how timely a show such as this is, in our political climate with our current gun violence issues,” Pennington said. “A lot of what is discussed in the show is very relevant to problems we are facing today.”

Pennington said the guns are almost their own character.

“The gun is a means to getting what each of the assassins wants, and that varies greatly, from Jodie Foster, to a desire to be ambassador to France, to an upset stomach,” she said. “We hope that the use of guns in the show will elicit a reaction in the audience and start a dialogue.”

Actor Rod Zamarron plays both roles of President Garfield and President Ford. He said he doesn’t think the show presents an “anti-gun stance,” but the audience could really take it any way they want.

“People are going to view this through their own filters,” Zamarron said. “Some will see Assassins as a 90-minute advertisement for the NRA, and some will see it as an elegy to banning guns. To me, guns in this show are a metaphor for the precarious nature of life and of history.”

However, guns are far from being the only issue addressed in the show.

“One of the themes in this show is that martyrdom enhances one’s legacy,” Zamarron said. “There are references to the mediocrity of some of our fallen Presidents, and, in the case of Lincoln, a postmortem apotheosis.”

Yet another theme was brought up by actor Ricardo Tavarez, who plays the role of presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant who has had a very hard life.

“He is plagued by a stomach illness that is unable to be identified by medicine during his time in history,” Tavarez said. “There is a running joke during the musical that Zangara attempts to assassinate President Franklin Roosevelt because his stomach hurts. I like playing Zangara because he represents a failed immigrant dream. It gives some reality to who can and cannot make it in this country.”

That idea of the “American Dream” is a huge part of the musical, as it has been across history.

“There is an overarching perception (that) if you make it to the U.S., or are born in this country, and work hard, then climbing the social stratosphere is a guarantee,” Tavarez said. “It didn't work for Zangara in Italy and it surely did not work for him in the United States. There is no American Dream for him, just a plague and a nightmare. When no one listens to the cry of these hurting, marginalized and mentally ill individuals, their dream becomes a desire just to be heard.

“If no person will hear them, then history will hear them and remember their names through their violence. We can pretend that our system and culture are perfect, but when these shots ring out, the perceived worldview of many is shattered, and the rest are reminded that the world has always been broken.”

Heritage Theatre at Spectrum Theater
160 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Aug. 9-18, $12-$22