‘Assassins’ Benefit Concert at Studio 54

Back in 2004, I had made plans to see the 5-time Tony-winning revival of Weidman and Sondheim’s Assassins just after Roundabout announced an extension through the fall. Within a couple of weeks, the extension was rescinded and I ended up not being able to get there. Whenever the production was mentioned in conversation over the next 8 years, I felt a slight tinge of regret – something I don’t feel very often when I don’t see a particular show. I had been an admirer of the original off-Broadway cast album, and found Sondheim’s exploration into the psyche of assassins and would-be assassins compelling, chilling and ultimately fascinating. So I often kicked myself for having missed it.

Late one night this last August while loafing around on Twitter, an announcement came through my feed that Roundabout would be presenting a one night only benefit concert of Assassins reuniting the entire 2004 cast, with Joe Mantello returning as director and Paul Gemignani as musical director. I don’t know that I’ve ever dropped more than a $100 on a theatre ticket, but decided I would treat myself to a rear mezzanine seat for $150. (Others paid much, much more for the privilege). I figured, especially since at the time I had only just recounted my regrets of missing the production, that this was something I had to see. No excuses. And as it would turn out, my buddy, Twitter maven, Sondheim enthusiast and professional crier Tyler Martins, bought a ticket for the seat right next to me.

As we took our seats for the concert, I couldn’t believe that more than three months had passed and the evening was finally here. To say I was excited would be an understatement. The evening was a staged concert with music stands and binders, with actors attired in all-black mufti and the orchestra (playing Michael Starobin’s excellent orchestrations) onstage. However, with a book this strong and a score this astounding – to say nothing of the brilliant company (with a game Annaleigh Ashford filling in for Mary Catherine Garrison as Squeaky Fromme), it didn’t matter.

The cast was superlative. Becky Ann Baker was a show-stealing riot as Sara Jane Moore, Mario Cantone was an appropriately loose cannon on Samuel Byck’s mad-man ramblings. My first experience seeing Denis O’Hare on stage was this summer in the Shakespeare in the Park revival of Into the Woods. While I thought he less than ideal as the Baker, he is gobsmackingly brilliant as Charles Guiteau, the unsettlingly upbeat shooter of James A. Garfield (his song is based on the actual poem he delivered at the gallows). Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony as John Wilkes Booth was excellent in the Lincoln scene, but utterly astounding in the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris).

During “Another National Anthem”  Harris exited the stage and returned wearing a white tee-shirt as Oswald. This final scene, the culmination of the evening, is a fantasia in which the assassins past and future visit Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on November 22, 1963 to urge him to kill President Kennedy instead of committing suicide. Director Joe Mantello recreated the famed Zapruder film projection on Harris’ shirt, while the orchestra played the warped carnival waltz version of “Hail to the Chief.” This leads into “Something Just Broke,” a brilliant rumination by the show’s small chorus on the impact these assassins had on the rest of the world; how a major tragedy rattles us as a nation, leaves vivid memories like scars of where we were and what we were doing, and ultimately how we carry on (for me, I haven’t lived through an assassination attempt, but it brings to mind the events of 9/11).

I left Studio 54 numb, though I would have gladly paid for an encore.

Random Thoughts on The Tony Awards

The best of times is now, or rather was last night as I live-twittered the Tony telecast from SarahB’s swanky suite in the Regency Hotel. Here are a few recollections from last evening…

– The preshow telecast should be aired on PBS or a local affiliate rather than as a webcast. It’s unfair for those who work so hard in their field of the industry to be relegated to a highlights reel during the nationwide telecast.

– Whoever was hired to work on the sound design for the telecast should be banned from the industry. Or perhaps go back to college to train in the field. So many faux pas: bizarre levels during the opening number, Titus Burgess’ mike going out (kudos to the well dressed stagehand who bolted out onstage with a handheld) and so many sloppy cues.

– Best presentation of an award goes to Frank Langella with a brilliant commentary on the snubbing of fall shows at this year’s awards. He almost immediately went off teleprompter (you could tell) as he performed his bit about being snubbed with sly wit (I especially loved the “Oh wait, this is my Oscar acceptance speech…”)

– The director should also reconsider his or her chosen profession. What a poorly executed show, with sloppy cues, sickening camera movements (especially during the “In Memoriam” tribute) and overall just bad programming for television. I’m sure it was great for the house at Radio City, but something was ultimately lost in translation for us little folk in television land.

– Neil Patrick Harris was a fantastic host…when they let him be onstage. Feels like he disappeared for well over an hour. He offered the best performance of the night with his eleven o’clock wrap up of the entire evening. Kudos to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who kept on their toes finalizing the song during the telecast!

– Speaking of performances, the opening number was a mixed bag. I liked how they arranged “Luck Be a Lady” and “Tonight” to be sung together in counterpoint, but the Aaron Tveit/Stockard Channing duet was just plain weird. The final moment with the cast of Hair leading all the presenters and performers with “Let the Sunshine In” was tremendous fun, pulling people out of their seats and onstage. It may not have landed as well in your living room, but from the full house standing ovation at Radio City, it was certainly a showstopper.

– The selected shows should have done a better job of representing themselves during the telecast. Christopher Sieber led the Shrek number which was quite cute and the Hair cast rocked the joint with their title song. However, the “Angry Dance” wasn’t an impressive showcase for Billy Elliot (not that it really matters, they don’t have to worry about being a box office draw), Next to Normal’s “You Don’t Know” didn’t really showcase much except Alice Ripley’s bringing the crazy (“Whew! That was way too much acting for me.” – Roxie).

Guys and Dolls is generally considered so well written that it’s foolproof. However, that was hands down the most lifeless rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” I’ve ever seen. Titus is a fantastic singer, Mary Testa always a scene stealer, but the lifeless choreography and projections made it a miss. Nothing could save this one. It didn’t help that Titus’ mike went out before the start of the song.

– Neil Patrick Harris was fun, affable, quirky and offbeat. He was an entertaining host but was decidedly underused. We could have used more of him throughout the evening (anyone else notice that he disappeared for an hour or so?) His final song was one of the best moments of the show, bringing it to a fantastic close.

– Angela Lansbury tied Julie Harris’ record for 5 performance Tony wins. Angie’s last Tony was thirty years ago for Sweeney Todd and I cannot tell you what a personal thrill it is to have been there to see this legend give a Tony winning performance; something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Her acceptance was poised, elegant and the epitome of class. Looking forward to cheering her first post-Tony performance on Tuesday evening. Her win was easily the most moving moment of the entire evening.

– Congratulations to Roger Robinson on his win for Joe Turner. It’s a great performance, but my heart belongs to Stephen Mangan’s Norman.

– After seeing Alice Ripley’s acceptance speech, I think it’s safe to say that this role is not that big a stretch for her. Jeff Bowen was right, she is fierce!

– The runner-up for classiest speech goes to Geoffrey Rush, who seems incredibly awed by his first experience on Broadway. Exit the King ends its limited engagement on Sunday so if you haven’t seen this titanic performance, run! I also hope Mr. Rush will come back to the NY theatre sooner rather than later!

– There was no time to present 12 distinguished awards during the telecast, but we were subjected to unnecessary performances from the national companies of Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys? Is it just me or was Legally Blonde not eligible to perform in 2007 because it wasn’t nominated for Best Musical? The Mamma Mia selection was embarrassing from its mere presence to the sloppiness of the performers. And finally, Jersey Boys has performed three of the last four years. I call a permanent moratorium on anything from that musical, but especially “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” If I wanted to hear that song, I’d put on a Four Seasons album, thank you very much.

– It was lovely to see a tie in the first category of the evening. Very unexpected and a rare occurence. However, Michael Starobin should not be allowed to speak again. Ever. Add to that Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s acceptance speech for Best Score where they alternated their interminable thanks. Guys, we get it and love that you provided the only upset of the evening. Now get off the friggin’ stage!

– Jerry Herman is a musical theatre icon. It was nice having Angie present to him, given their two shows together. However, the video footage used was already seen in the documentary “Words and Music.” Jerry’s words and music are the type of unabashedly Broadway elegance that epitomized musical comedy in the latter half of the 20th century. Surely a live tribute could have been used (again, in place of those national tours!). I mean, there was Angie herself! Plus, so many others like George Hearn, Carol Channing, among others originated parts in his shows and are still with us. Just sayin’…

– It was a nice touch having cast members introduce the four nominees for Best Play. However, (and this ties in indirectly with the time wasted on the national tours), there should have been more than a 20 second clip to represent the work onstage. Remember when they used to perform actual excerpts from the nominated plays for the audience to see? The musicals are the bigger draw, but this year in particular was the year of the play.

All in all, it was a fun evening. Gathering with blogger friends with endless champagne and fresca. Last year we zipped up the cocktail slacks and went up to Sarah’s apartment. This year, especially as the event seems to grow and grow in size, we took it to the Regency where we were the epitome of class and crass (oh don’t judge, you know all the best people are a combination thereof!) Razor sharp one-liners volleyed back and forth across the room through plastic flutes of champagne, pizza, cucumber sandwiches, rice krispies and Fresca (that was a first for me…). Plus, we had our own ballots (I got 20 categories right), our own Tony identities (Hello, my name is Carol Channing…) and Sarah was even lovely enough to give out swag! (I now have the revival magnet for West Side Story to go with the one for the original).

Regardless of what we felt was happening on television, we had nothing short of a blast, so much fun that I’m surprised it’s not criminal. Kari has somehow designated me the sugar daddy of the group, with all bills heading in my general direction. Sarah, ever the effusive host, was dressed to rival Liza herself; all black and sparkles. Roxie, Christine, Jimmy, Russell and Sally were back again as well, plus newcomers Esther and Byrne. All in all, one couldn’t ask for a better evening, nor better company with which to spend it. Though we hope next year our other regional favorites can join us too! (Thank God for twitter, where we could at least keep in touch throughout!)

Already excited for Tony Day 2010, when we nomads take our act on the road to a hotel that actually has NY1. Until then, there is a lot of theatre to be seen, a lot of opinions to be shared and many more memorable good times to be had by all of us.

The Tony Closing Number

In what was probably the best Tony performance last evening, Neil Patrick Harris closed the show with a little medley reprising the opening combination of West Side Story and Guys and Dolls with new lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Tonight, tonight
The Tonys were tonight
And Elton’s Billy was all the rage
What class, what drive
Now Angela won five
And she hooked up with Poison backstage

With heels as sore as poor Achilles
Three tutu-wearing Billys
Were such a winning sight

Tonight, all three
Won Tony plus they hit puberty

(to “Luck be a Lady”)

And Geoffrey won a Tony tonight
Karen won a Tony tonight
Liza at the Palace
Mr. Ripley’s daughter Alice
They all won a Tony tonight

Credits! That’s not going to stop me!


Chris Sieber – please!
Performing on your knees?
Dude, that only works
To win Golden Globes

I hope, tonight,
When they’re high as a kite
To be there when the Hair cast disrobes

This show
Could not be any gayer
If Liza was named mayor
And Elton John took flight

The curtain falls
I’m off to hit some big Tony balls