Skip to comments.On Directing 'Assassins': Guns, guns, and more guns. On stage!
Posted on 06/15/2007 2:19:10 AM PDT by Silly
An introduction by Silly appears in the first post. This article may make more sense if you read that first.
While Assassins might seem like an attractive piece for a theatre to consider at first glance - the Sondheim name, minimal scenery, smallish cast, gripping subject matter - it is much more of an undertaking than it would first appear.
To begin with, you have the outraged chorus of everyone from the board to the neighbors - "A MUSICAL? About Assassins? I just can't imagine what kind of musical numbers you could do. Aren't you trivializing the subject? Aren't you glorifying the Assassins?; Etc. etc. etc. One would think that musicals dealing with serious subject matter had never appeared before. Everything from West Side Story to Cabaret to Les Miserables and Miss Saigon completely forgotten. Or that Sondheim was known for fluff - If you had seen Sweeny Todd, or Pacific Overatures, or even Anyone Can Whistle, you would know that he could write a musical about Assassins without being either trivial or sentimental. Nonetheless, that first knee-jerk reaction from the uninitiated is the first hurdle - both to getting the show choice approved and to getting an audience in the seats.
Once you begin casting, you realize that not only is the cast larger than you probably thought, but you are faced with casting 9 principals, with strong vocal demands and specific physical types.
To add to the casting dilemma, the show has mostly men, which in many areas are much more difficult to come by. Everyone in the audience knows what Booth, Oswald, Fromme, and Hinckley should look like. Add to that Booth's huge vocal range, or the fact that Hinckley really needs to play the guitar, and you begin to see the difficulty. The Balladeer has to sing quite high, and ideally play a banjo and maybe a guitar. He also needs to be charming enough for the audience to identify with. Zangara has to be quite short, do a monologue in Italian, and sing a tenor A above the staff. He should also be able to go from simplistic immigrant befuddlement to palpable dangerous hostility in the blink of an eye. Find that on the corner. Moore has to sing a respectable range, master the tricky rhythms of the "Gun Song", and have tremendous comic timing while still convincingly playing a confused middle aged housewife with a dangerous streak. There are no easy roles in this show.
The show is prop hell, no doubt about it. The hand props are what place each scene and each Assassin in time and place. The guns come to mind immediately, of course. Some are described in the script. Most have to fire, although some can get away without it. How historically accurate do you have to/want to be? Hinckley is supposed to fire more than 6 times in succession - an automatic instead of a short barrelled .22? Can you get blanks for an automatic? A .22 starter pistol fires 8 shots. Is that enough? Moore used a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver - yet, in the course of the play, she has to whip it in and out of her purse about a thousand times, and she fires her gun more than any other character - is a cannon like a standard S&W really a good idea? She makes reference to the caliber in the gun song, but wouldn't a snub nose police .38 work just as well? If you are historically accurate, you need at least 6 different kinds of ammunition. (7, if you pad your arsenal with starter pistols). What would that do to your budget? How big is your theatre? Can you fire Oswald's rifle, or Squeaky's .45, or even Moore's .38 without deafening the assembled? Half load, quarter load, no load blanks . . . How close are you to the audience? Is it safe to fire even a blank pistol that close?
Where does [Booth] pocket his gun when his coat is off? Can he sit with it in a pants pocket? If so, can he pull it from the pocket while sitting? Where does Squeaky keep her gun? In reality, she wore a leg holster. Fun look, but is it practical with a .45? Can she get it out of a robe pocket quickly to try to shoot Ford? Does she have a waistband under the robe to tuck it in?
One of the things that makes the show great is that most Americans prefer to think of the Assassins as a collection of crazed nutballs, and the show forces you to consider things from their perspective, which often means coming to the realization that some of them had a point. It also means coming to the realization that they are not all the same - that their motives vary considerably. It is important to keep that in mind when casting and directing the show. While voices are important, and this is a typically difficult Sondheim score, complete with tricky rythms and impossible tessituras, the book is strong, and the acting is vitally important. Given the choice, go with actors who sing rather than singers who act.
As the Assassins go, it is tempting to take just the obvious choices for each character. Booth is undeniably charming, Moore is undeniably funny, etc. but don't let them just play that. Each character has that important dark side. I think that that is the reason Moore kills her dog. To remind us that she is dangerous. Make sure Booth is sufficiently racist and obsessed as well as charming and manipulative. Remind Moore and Squeaky that their attempts took place right after Watergate, and not so far enough removed from JFK, Bobby, and MLK that had they succeeded, they might well have thrown the country into a real uproar. Don't let them, (or Zangara or Byck or Guiteau) get so funny that we forget that they are dangerous.
You can buy or rent "stage" guns, although that can run into considerable expense. I do not recommend using a plugged barrel "stage gun" for Czolgosz (see below). You might see if replica guns are available through your local ROTC or Army Reserve. You might also check various gun shops and see if they will loan you guns in exchange for tickets, advertising, or whatever. I have heard of some productions getting guns through the police department. If you do not have an SAFD certified fight instructor or weapons expert available to you, you should also check with one of these sources regarding instructions on the use (including loading and cleaning) of these weapons, and possible use of a firing range for practice. Guns should be emptied and cleaned every night following the performance, and even though you are using blanks, guns and ammunition should both be collected and locked up in separate places. Guns, whether real or not, firing or non, should always be handled with respect and care, and never pointed at another person outside of the actual blocking of the show. In fact, in any but the very smallest house, many fight instructors will tell you to aim slightly upstage of your target during the show. This is usually invisible to the audience, but helps protect the actor playing the victim from the hot gasses and stray bits of powder that vent through the barrel of a gun firing blanks. For the same reason, you should never fire a blank gun pressed directly against someone's head. They can be burned, deafened, and possibly killed. I cannot stress enough that you should seek qualified instruction and take great care when handling weapons.
You will need at least 10 guns, possibly 11. Each of the 9 Assassins has a weapon, and Lee Harvey Oswald actually has two - the rifle he uses to shoot JFK, and the pistol that he is planning to kill himself with at the top of Scene 16. (Since it is presumably the pistol that he kills the cop with later, it should be a .38 - but then, in strict reality, he shouldn't have it with him at the Book Depository). You should have at least on gun backstage, preferably on the person of a levelheaded prop person or stage manager. This gun serves as backup in case one of the onstage guns misfires, and can be used for offstage gunshots. It could certainly be a starter pistol. They can't share guns because they are all onstage, pistols in hand, for the finale, so you are looking at a minimum of 9 pistols + 1 rifle, and with a backstage gun, + 1 more for a total of 11.
Some specific weapons and calibers are mentioned in the script - Moore's .38 (In reality, she used a Smith and Wesson revolver),Czolgosz's .32 (Iver Johnson revolver with black grip - rubber handle with owls stamped on the sides), and Oswald's rifle (6.5 millimeter Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with telescopic site). As I mentioned, Oswald also used a .38 cal revolver. Research told us that Squeaky Fromme used a .45 cal pistol, (and a LEG HOLSTER). Booth actually used a colt, from what we could tell. Hinckley used a .22 cal semi automatic short barrel.. Zangara used a .32 cal revolver . Guiteau used a British "Bull Dog" silver handled .44 cal revolver. He specifically chose the gun because he figured it would be on display in a museum after the assassination, and he wanted it to look good. Byck used a .22 cal revolver. As you can see, to be historically accurate, you end up needing many different caliber guns (and therefore ammunition). Blanks come in several sizes - full load blanks which sound just like a real gunshot, as well as half load, quarter load, and no load blanks, which are decreasingly less loud. (Which might be a good thing, if you run the risk of deafening your actors or audience.) When I did the show, we used + load blanks in the .38's and .32's.
"That's great," you say, "but how can I cheat so that I don't spend my entire budget on guns and ammunition, and/or kill or deafen audience members?" Many of the characters can get away with guns that do not actually fire, and several can get away with .22 starter pistols. (Much cheaper and safer, and fires 8 rounds without reloading). In our production, we gave Booth a period "boot gun" derringer that didn't fire. (We cut the soldier totally (saved a costume), and did Booth's suicide shot in a blackout with the offstage gun. IF HIS GUN DOES FIRE, BE SURE THAT HE REMOVES IT FROM HIS HEAD AND POINTS IT AT ARM'S LENGTH EITHER STRAIGHT UP OR STRAIGHT DOWN FOR THE SHOT DURING THE BLACKOUT. FIRING A BLANK GUN PRESSED TO YOUR HEAD IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, AND CAN BE FATAL!
Zangara's gun didn't fire (He only fires when the rest of the group does, and no one notices). Squeaky Fromme's .45 didn't fire (She and Moore pointed their guns at the chicken bucket and took turns yelling BANG!, which escalated into various and more frenetic attacks - machine gun fire, etc. Stupid kid stuff. When that was at it's height, Moore actually (accidentally) fires her gun, which stuns them into silence and scares them both to death before they collapse into giggles).The leg holster was too cumbersome for our Squeaky to wear (darn it!), so she kept the .45 in a pocket of her robe. Our Moore did have a .38, but a real Smith & Wesson is such a cannon that it was a real problem to get in and out of the purse as quickly and as often as she needs to be able to, so we used a snub nose .38 like the police have instead. We gave Guiteau a silver handled .32 rather than a .44, to minimize noise and so he could share ammo with Czolgosz. We had to give Hinckley an automatic so that he could fire enough shots. Oswald's rifle didn't fire (Stylized gunshot, which we did that way for three reasons. One, because he was down center aiming out the "window", and there was too much chance of accidentally hurting an audience member, even with a blank. Two, because to really shoot that rifle in our space would have deafened the assembled. Three, we wanted to do this cool reverb effect with the gunshot, which we accomplished by shooting an (offstage) .38 into a microphone which the sound op could then run through a big reverb unit at the same time that we overlaid a recorded shot. This takes split second timing. Endless echoes . . . ). We gave Byck and Oswald .22 starter pistols, but either or both could get away with guns that do not fire as long as enough other people can fire, so that the company shooting together doesn't sound really pitiful.. Depending on the size of your house, you might be able to get away with doing the actual gunshots offstage, but except for maybe Booth (see above) or some kind of stylized shot like Oswald (see above), I wouldn't recommend it. However, on a big stage you could probably get away with all of your firing weapons being starter pistols, except that Oswald really MUST have a rifle, even if it doesn't fire. A 30.06, or frankly, just about any bolt action rifle with a sight will do, depending on the size of your stage. A period look to Booth's gun is pretty necessary too, even in a big house.
IMPORTANT! It is dangerous to use a starter pistol or any other "stage gun" weapon with a sealed barrel for Czolgosz. Starters and stage guns typically plug the barrel, which prevents stray bits of powder and crap from ejecting that way. Since Czolgosz is usually blocked to shoot the invisible McKinley down center, straight out at the audience, this might seem like a good idea. But he is also supposed to wrap his gun in a Handkerchief - it is how he gets it through the line, and it's mentioned in the lyrics. Guns must vent in some direction, and the guns with plugged barrels generally vent through the side of the gun. If that vent is blocked with a Handkerchief, you can scorch or burn the Handkerchief and/or the actor's hand, or, in a worst case scenario, cause the gun to explode. If you MUST use a gun with a plugged barrel, make sure that Czolgosz is blocked to completely remove the handkerchief before firing. He doesn't have much time.
So, these are the details on the guns for Assassins. Have a good (and safe!)
INTRODUCTION BY SILLY
"Hey -- my dad has an arsenal! Let's put on a show!"
You gun lovers would have a blast watching the Broadway show "Assassins". Every character has a gun. In fact, eleven guns are needed to perform this show. You've never seen so many guns on a stage in your life!
"Assassins" is about all the people who have ever tried to assassinate an American president. Some succeeded (we know who they are) but most didn't. All were a bit strange in their own way, but all had serious ideas (albeit flawed). None of these characters are easy to play on stage; each has a humorous or human side, all have a dangerous side, all have a crazy side, and all have serious intentions and histories which must be understood to portray them well.
"Assassins" is a fun and interesting show. Thoughtful, funny, sorrowful, dangerous, angry -- and extremely entertaining Tons of great songs with superb lyrics.
And lots of guns!
Lately I've been becoming more interested in gun training and selecting a firearm once I'm trained. And being a musical theatre buff, I came across this interesting article on "Assassins." It's written by a director, to directors considering mounting this production.
The article is full of advice for making sure the show is successful. What is so interesting is how much of the staging and props center around thorough knowledge and handling of guns.
Historical guns, stage guns, firing guns on stage -- these are the practical considerations that challenge actors and directors working on this show.
I hope you find the article diverting. I've deleted some material not dealing with guns, so if you're interested in reading the complete article, follow the link.
Throughout the thread, I'll post pictures, lyrics, and other information about the show and the characters portrayed.
Hi - would you please ping your gun aficionados to this thread? I’d love to hear their views.
I wamnt to reply vbut my keyoard is roke. argh!
wiLl try later! Sondheim ruLes!
But I think Sondheim could be the only composer to pull this off. I'm a big fan of his "darker" side. I've never seen this production, so I can't give you an impression of whether it is filled with American self-loathing or not. But it is an interesting metaphor of what is wrong with us as a nation ....somewhere between suicidal Goths and PC parents loathing squirt guns.
Ev'ry now and then
Bound to come along.
Doesn't stop the story--
Story's pretty strong.
Doesn't change the song...
There are those who love regretting,
There are those who like extremes,
There are those who thrive on chaos
There are those who keep forgetting
That the country's built on dreams--
It wouldn’t bother me at all if we never released the names of the maniacs who murder innocent people.
If you get the Blue Press from Dillon Precision, there’s an article that says the same thing. If you can violate the Second Amendment so half the people in this country can’t own a gun, then let’s stop releasing the names of killers.
This production is off the wall stupid. Libs and socialists love violence and mayhem. That’s why they don’t want you to have a gun. They know if they had one, they would use it on someone at the first opportunity.
This is not an anti-gun show by any means. But it is thoughtful, brilliant, entertaining and nuanced, so I can see how a typical knee-jerk FReeper would object. Especially without having seen it (there’s intelligence for you).
You quoted a very thoughtful lyric. Kudos to you. I think you hit the nail on the head.
This show is just plain brilliant. It really hit me like a ton of bricks — I had to run right back and see it twice. It’s a show about passion, about ideas, about emotions, and humor and grief.
The two women are a riot. They both tried to shoot Ford, on different occasions, in two difference California hotels.
One of their scenes together requires the prop department to procure (or make) a vintage KFC bucket. It’s quite funny to see one of these on stage. They give Colonel Sanders the evil eye, and then shoot the bucket together.
So many great scenes... At one moment, Sara Jane Moore misses an opportunity to shoot Ford. He comes out, shakes her hand, and she goes all gooey. Then she pulls her gun out of her purse, but drops it. When she picks it up the bullets fall out, and the SS take the gun.
As Ford exits, smiling and oblivious, into the wings, she’s starts to cry. She picks up some bullets from the floor and throws them at him one by one, into the wings, yelling, “Bang! Bang!”
I’m sure Caroline Kennedy will have front row seats so she can see her father’s “killer” on stage singing and dancing.
And yes, that is extreme sarcasm if you missed it.
It’s “thoughtful”. I doubt the producers spent a second using their brains on this one.
“Brilliant”? Doubt some more. It’s only a version of shockjock on stage for publicity. If you can’t be good, get publicity for being mind numbing bad.
“Entertaining?”. Doubt some more. Giving killers publicity and a stage isn’t my form of entertainment.
The Simpson’s did a parody about Broadway’s lack of ideas. It sounds like the producers of this trash didn’t get the satire of an “Itchy and Scratchy” musical.
Wow. You give new definition to the word ‘mindless’.
1. Don’t see or read a show.
2. Know nothing about it.
3. Then comment on it.
Formula for stupidity.
Oh, and as far as I remember, there is little if any dancing in this show.
But thanks for the bumps. I’ll look at it as “publicity for killers.”