‘Assassins,’ Sondheim’s pitch-black musical of political violence, finds a home at downtown’s historic Cheyenne Saloon

John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Lincoln, is just one of the titular "Assassins"
John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Lincoln, is just one of the titular "Assassins" etching c.1900, public domain

It's tempting to read today's headlines and conclude that this is a uniquely awful time period for civility and the rule of law, but the truth is that political violence is as American as apple pie.

For a tuneful take on this ongoing national obsession, visit Church Street's Cheyenne Saloon, where Kenny Howard and Florida Theatrical Association have reactivated the long-dormant nightclub with an immersive staging of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's controversial satire about both the attempted and the successful assassinations of various United States presidents.

"It's a show that I've always loved ever since the original recording, but I didn't actually think I wanted to direct it," Howard confessed to me in a conversation following opening weekend of the production, which runs through May 1.

"I wanted to do a Sondheim, and I kept coming back to this one, but I saw the 2004 [Broadway] revival. That's the only time I've ever seen that live, and the set and everything was just so incredible. I was like, 'What can I bring new to it? How can I make it my own?' and I really didn't think I could. And then I found the Cheyenne, and then that kind of changed my outlook because I knew just by the setting alone that it would be special."

Assassins ended up in the Cheyenne Saloon — once the opulent anchor of Bob Snow's Church Street Station during the entertainment complex's 1980s heyday — almost by accident. When FTA's usual venue, the Abbey, was unavailable, Howard said he "called any theater that I could think of from the Plaza to the Pugh, and basically ran out of actual legit theater spaces. I just searched for venues and when the Cheyenne came up, it's just like it all clicked. ... When we walked in for the first walk-through before we signed the agreement, I could just see the entire production in my head."

Of course, putting on a show inside a historic building poses its challenges, and Howard and his team had just over seven weeks between securing the space and April 22's opening night. Howard said with a laugh that on their first walk through, it looked like no one had been inside in years.

"The only place that you can hang lights ... are the booms [over] the dance floor," he said. "Because the entire place is wood ... the set had to be such that the only things that we could use were tape, ties and Command hooks. We could not use a tack, a staple, or a nail; nothing that would put any hole, no matter how small, into the space."

Pipe-and-drape transformed the upper floor into a dressing room — complete with a pool table that proved popular with the cast during rehearsals — but the less said about the no-man's-land behind the bar, said Howard, the better.

"It was a really great experience, but it presented challenges," Howard said, forewarning any other theater producers considering leasing the space from Lincoln Property Co. "It wouldn't have changed us wanting to do it, but I think we could have gone in a little bit more prepared had we looked into some of the brass tacks of the whole situation."

In addition to the fresh location, Howard has filled his cast with a number of vibrant new voices — including Kristie Geng as Charlie Manson devotee Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme — along with a few of his past collaborators, like Jason Blackwater as Samuel Byck, the sad-sack Santa who tried to snuff Nixon.

"I've only worked with probably seven out of the 18, so that was very different," said Howard of assembling his talented ensemble. "I just wanted to mix things up a little bit, so I didn't precast anyone; everyone submitted a video audition, and then we did a callback."

That even included his longtime friend David Lee, who eerily embodies John Wilkes Booth with a righteous intensity that makes his murderous racism almost seem rational. "David came in wanting the role and his voice has the timbre for it," Howard said. "He's a serious person by nature, and that just feeds into Booth."

Assassins was rejected by audiences and critics alike upon its 1991 off-Broadway debut, and the better-received 2004 revival was postponed for several years because of post-9/11 sensitivities. The show's vaudeville-style structure lacks dramatic drive, and the climactic confrontation between Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald (Cameron Silverman) won't have the originally intended emotional resonance with audiences born 40 or more years post-JFK.

However, Assassins remains terrifyingly relevant thanks to contemporary populist frustration with politicians, especially with Howard's in-your-face staging forcing audiences to confront the consequences of our firearm-flooded culture at literal gunpoint.

"I do think that it was ahead of its time. We've had conversations where now I ask the question, 'Is it past its time?' because of [today's] readiness to say, 'Oh, I wish he would be assassinated,'" Howard says. "Just look at the type of violence — especially after January 6 — it put into play."

But if Howard sees a karmic bright side in this pitch-black play, it's that each of the titular assassins was ultimately destroyed by the very violence they tried to perpetrate.

"Each of them thinks that they're going to solve the issue," observes Howard, "but America takes care of each of them in its own way."


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