Thursday 22 February 2018

A killer musical

Provocative: Raymond Scannell playing Lee Harvey Oswald
Provocative: Raymond Scannell playing Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald

Aedin Gormley

If you had all the money in the world, what would you do? "Right now I would direct Assassins." So said Ronan Phelan when he was interviewed to be part of Rough Magic's 'Seeds Programme', which is a development initiative for emerging theatre practitioners. Well, two years later, his dream has come true. He will direct one of Stephen Sondheim's more unusual musicals next week, one that is both witty and provocative.

The American composer and lyricist is best known for his earlier musicals such as Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.

Assassins, with a book by John Weidman, first opened off Broadway in 1990. It is essentially a musical comedy about presidential assassinations. Yes, it may sound like a strange premise for a musical, a portrayal of men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate presidents of the United States. Characters include John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President John F Kennedy.

Sondheim has said that he expected a backlash from the public.

"There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals . . . we're not going to apologise for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes," he told The New York Times.

It may have had a shaky start but Sondheim was always ahead of his time and the 2004 Broadway revival won five Tony Awards.

I happen to be a big Sondheim fan, but I barely got a word in talking to young director Ronan during a break from rehearsals this week; he is hugely passionate about Sondheim.

He told me that he discovered the composer when he started studying drama having found the musicals produced when he was at school to be less than satisfying.

"I bought the CD Company and, the first time I listened to it, I thought this doesn't sound like a musical; it was complicated, the music was changing all the time, there was no feeling that one of the songs was written to be a hit. I got hooked and started going through the whole catalogue."

Ronan began to realise how diverse each show was and how Sondheim immerses himself into the story almost like an actor would into a character. For those familiar with Sondheim's earlier musicals, Assassins will feel very different. Ronan describes it more as a musical revue, a collection of songs as opposed to a score. Ten songs in all, including his favourite 'Another National Anthem'.

"This is the song on which the show pivots; the assassins take over the stage and sing about this alternative national anthem, it's the turning point of the play. After this, everything has changed."

Ronan believes that it is a very self-aware musical and this seems to be part of his own ambition with this production, to remind us that this can also be musical theatre. The thing is that Sondheim cleverly creates a musical that is entertaining and enjoyable. It may be about a serious subject but it is written as a dark comedy.

So now that Ronan's wish has been granted and he is about to direct Assassins, how does he feel?

"I'm really excited, it's ambitious, maybe overly ambitious, who knows, but I was going to keep saying that I would direct Assassins until somebody told me I couldn't. Nobody told me I couldn't do it, so now I'm doing it."

Rough Magic SEEDS present Assassins; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Ronan Phelan. Project Arts Centre, nine nights only, December 5-14, 9.15pm. See

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Sat 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sun 12-2pm) on RTÉ lyric fm.

Irish Independent

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