John Weidman interview - 'Usually I look back on work and wish I could go back and fix it, but not with Assassins'


During the 2017 US presidential election campaign, one (of many) of Donald Trump's outrageous remarks was to warn one rally that if Hillary Clinton was elected president and appointed judges who favoured stricter gun control measures, "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks." He then chillingly added, "Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know." Here was one presidential candidate suggesting, however obliquely, that an assassination might sort it out.

No wonder that Assassins, the 1990 Off-Broadway musical co-written by John Weidman (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), has never been more chillingly relevant than it is today. And speaking to Weidman just days after another brutal American high school massacre of young students by one of their former colleagues, he remarks with distress, "The vitality of gun culture in this country seems irreversible - I hope it’s not, but the emotions which continue to be stirred up are intense. It's quite hard to talk about it - seeing kids talking to the camera, saying 'We're kids, you're the adults, what are you going to do about it? The engineered paralysis around this issue is awful."

Today he is also keen to reiterate, "Steve and I are always very careful not to explain the show - we want to let audiences come to it and find it in different ways. But the election of Trump changes the cultural context within which they will come to the show and  take away what they choose to take away from it - it definitely changes the context outside the theatre which has to affect the way they experience it inside it."

John Weidman
John Weidman

It is astonishing how prescient this historically-based musical has become as it tells of how a series of misfits and aggrieved individuals wrote themselves into American history with assassinations, or attempted ones, on sitting American presidents. Sondheim and Weidman had no idea that it would turn out this way when they began work on it: "We didn't know where we were going to come out when we dove into this at the beginning, but I think we're both very satisfied when we've seen it in subsequent productions. Usually you look at something you've done and think, 'Christ I wish I could go back and fix that or change this'. But not with this piece."

Not that it was rapturously received by the critics who reviewed it first. "In the beginning I would say it was misunderstood. One of criticisms was that it seemed formless and had a revue or cabaret quality; you could move the pieces around and it would make no difference. I have always found that description vaguely annoying. There's no chronological or linear structure to the piece, but it has an iron-clad structure that determines why everything is where it is and what it is meant to accomplish. I think one of the reasons audiences began to experience it as a satisfying totality is because that embedded structure begins to play on them."

As so often with Sondheim, he was simply ahead of his time. And if the rise of Trump means that its time may have finally arrived, London has a unique opportunity to experience it afresh in a new production at the Pleasance, running from 20th March to 8th April.

It's not the only musical that Weidman has collaborated with Sondheim on. Pacific Overtures, which premiered on Broadway in 1976, was their first - 42 years ago. “Thanks for the number Mark!" he quips when I cite the time. He speaks of the genesis of the show and how he came to be involved, at a time when he was still a law student - first at Harvard, then at Yale. "The creative drive at the centre of that piece was [director/producer] Hal Prince. I took idea of a play about Commodore Perry's expedition to open Japan when I was still a law student, and Hal was taken with it immediately. I wrote it as a straight pay but he thought it should become a musical. He browbeat Steve into joining the project and the three of us went forward form there. The notion that a commercial producer like Hal would decide to put a Kabuki-based musical into the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway is a reflection of how different the commercial theatre was then and is now!"

Given that trade relationships with other nations, particularly Asian ones, are also high on Donald Trump's agenda, that show could also be seen as prescient today.

Cast of Assassins in rehearsals

But more recently Weidman has also worked with Sondheim on Road Show - a musical that had begun its life as Wise Guys, then became Bounce - before being premiered at New York's Public Theater and coming to London's Menier Chocolate Factory in a new production, which has also previously staged Take Flight (a musical Weidman co-wrote with Maltby and Shire) and Assassins. "I've had a good run at the Menier - I love that space, it is infinitely welcoming."

In 2016 he came to the UK to see a production of another Broadway show he'd written with Maltby and Shire, based on the film Big. "It was a complicated moment for me - I had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning the night after Donald Trump was elected President to fly to the UK to see it in Plymouth!" That show had failed on Broadway - "It was a quality piece of work, but arrived in same season as Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk and Rent, and was perceived as being conventional and old-fashioned, which is not inaccurate but was not helpful in terms of people seeing its real virtues."

He had a more ground-breaking success with Contact, a "dansical" directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman that told its story through dance. "I don't look for ways to be unconventional - but I feel activated when I'm approaching something in what other people would say is an unconventional way. With Assassins, we didn't sit down and think, let's make it different; we just started writing the show we wanted to write about this collection of characters. And the same thing is true of Contact - the show evolved as it did not because we were looking for a way to do something exotic, but because the storytelling seemed to drive that particular choice of form."

Today, he says, "It’s uncomfortable to sit through unsuccessful productions of your work - but I'm always curious to see what the audience makes of it. So I have a Google Alert set to find out what people make of it." A few day later, he e-mails me with one of them: a review of a recent production in Raleigh in North Carolina wrote this. "There are a lot of guns in this show, and we should address the .38-caliber elephant in the room: Doing a show where a significant portion of the characters are angry, entitled, white men who feel that the world has cheated them out of something that they deserve hits very close to home in our current political climate; and seeing weak and mentally ill people rely on guns to make themselves feel powerful or to get the attention they crave makes this show an uncomfortable look into our past, because it so very much resembles our present, especially with the most recent murder of schoolchildren still fresh in our hearts. But if it is the purpose of art to communicate ideas, create something of beauty and explore human motivations, then Assassins fires with both barrels!" That sums up exactly why this show is more resonant and relevant than ever today.

Assassins is at the Pleasance Theatre until 8th April.

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