Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins is a nightmarish vision of a US system which generates inequality and despair. Originally performed as George Bush senior attacked Iraq in 1991, the show was condemned by many theatre critics as sinister, dangerous and of glorifying terrorism.
A leading London critic claimed that Sondheim “might almost be recommending that George Bush be shot”.
The show has lost none of its power to shock in a new, confident production at Sheffield’s Crucible.
With passionate sensitivity and humour the company draws out our sympathy and understanding for nine people who have tried to assassinate US presidents, sometimes succeeding.
Musical styles are matched to each characters’ life, along with politically sharp lyrics. This creates a strong sense of history.
The show is a sequence of stark contrasts. A scene in which the Chicago police break up a meeting addressed by the revolutionary Emma Goldman is followed by one in which “the round and prosperous” president McKinley greets people at a business event with the boast that anyone can reach the top in the US.
But this is a US where “some men have everything and some have none”. The production of a gun kills hundreds before it is made – “In the mines, in the mills, at machines. Who died for what? A thing to make the bosses richer.”
Each scene is linked by a folk singer whose breezy, optimistic comments are played with a sardonic edge by Matt Rawles.
He argues that the assassins may have “shed a little blood and stirred a little mud. But didn’t help the workers and didn’t heal the country.”
As he says this the stage fills with the ranks of the desperate who grow louder and more confident until they drive him from the stage.
Marching forward they urge the audience to spread the word that the dispossessed have another national anthem that must be heard.
This is a powerful production of one of the greatest shows of the 20th century.
It should be seen before Tony Blair finds some way of getting it banned.
Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim, is being performed at the Sheffield Crucible until 1 April. Go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk