Stephen Sondheim has given us the warm nostalgia of "Follies," the contemporary relationship foibles of "Company," the summer magic of "A Little Night Music" and the passion of "Passion." He's delivered "Comedy Tonight" and suggested when to "Send in the Clowns."
But Sondheim is also a master of musical tragedy. He composed the satirical slaughter frenzy "Sweeney Todd" and penned the mournful lyrics for "West Side Story." He explored artistic despair in "Sunday in the Park With George" and shattered youthful idealism in "Merrily We Roll Along."
The shining example of Sondheim's dark side is "Assassins." Yale Repertory Theatre, which famously world-premiered Sondheim's musical "The Frogs" in 1974 in the university's swimming pool, has chosen to stage "Assassins" as part of the theater's 50th anniversary season.
Sondheim's show premiered off-Broadway in 1990 and had a much-lauded Broadway production in 2004. It was written with John Weidman, who also worked with Sondheim on "Pacific Overtures" and "Road Show."
"Assassins" uses a novel song-revue format to bring together a group of characters spanning over a century of American history. Their main bond is that they have attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents.
It's one of just two shows in the five-show season that are not world premieres. The 17-person cast includes New York musical theater veterans (Julia Murney, as the woman who shot Gerald Ford), Yale Rep veterans (Liz Wisan, who plays Anarchist icon Emma Goldman) and some who are both (Stephen DeRosa, last seen at the Rep in "These Paper Bullets!" as James Garfield's assassin Charles Guiteau; DeRosa's Broadway credits include The Baker in the 2002 revival of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"). "Assassins" is directed by James Bundy, who has held dual posts as the Rep's artistic director and the dean of the Yale School of Drama since 2002.
While live music has been an element of many Rep shows, "Assassins" stands out with its 13-piece orchestra. The show's music director is Andrea Grody, acclaimed for her work on David Yazbek's "The Band's Visit" at New York's Atlantic Theater Company last year.
A native of West Hartford, where she was in the Pops 'n Jazz and Choraliers ensembles at Hall High School, Grody has been helping the musicians and actors come to terms with the tricky scores of "Assassins." At the performances, "I'm the conductor," Grody said in a phone interview earlier this month. "That's a rare luxury, not to have to play as well." Knowing the show deeply ("I did it in college, which is true of many people — there have not been many professional productions"), Grody knew she had to make every minute of the rehearsals count.
Grody began working with the performers on the music before there was even a full-cast read-through of the script. "I knew everything I could, going into this, but knowing it and putting it on its feet are two different things. This is truly an ensemble show, not two leads plus supporting roles. Each character has his or her own moments.
"It's a great gift of a score," Grody says. "It's a pastiche. There's a lot to learn about, research and understand. It doesn't have enough of a history as a show that the answers to its challenges are obvious.
"It's this surreal revue — the writers don't like calling it a musical. It's set in limbo. It's about dreams in America. It's about what America means, and how the country is always evolving."
Austin Durant, who plays the assassin-enabling Proprietor in the show, is an excellent example of the range of roles available to actors at Yale Rep. In the most recent decade of the Rep's half-century history, Durant has appeared in James Bundy's African American rethinking of "The Death of a Salesman," Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play," Richard Montoya's revisionist historical comedy "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose" and as Horatio (opposite Paul Giamatti's melancholy prince) in Bundy's 2013 production of "Hamlet."
"James Bundy is the director I've worked with the most in my career," Durant said in a phone interview last week. The actor sees similarities among the Rep shows he's been in: "These plays exist on a really epic scale of storytelling. One of the great things about Yale Rep is it has these incredible resources to tell a story in a daring way. The Rep is not there to produce simple, digestible theater experiences. It's there to challenge audiences.
"'Assassins' is not a political piece. It's giving a voice to people who are deeply disenfranchised, and also to those who are optimistic about the country. It doesn't condone the actions of the assassins, but it does try to explain them," said Durant.
"ASSASSINS" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by James Bundy, produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre, is at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven through to April 8. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with an added Wednesday matinee March 29 at 2 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. on March 25, April 1 and 8. Tickets are $44 to $88, $20 to $30 for students. 203-432-1234, yalerep.org.