In this Sondheim classic presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company, nine misfits are linked by one common act: Assassinations, successful and attempted, of a US President.
Luke Hewitt plays the Proprietor, who acts as an “emotional accelerator” upon the company.
Three rehearsals in when we speak, he says “everyone’s sort of head down, tail up working hard” on the challenging musical work.
“It’s Sondheim, so he doesn’t generally make it easy for you. I’m not a trained singer, and he has this knack of writing melodic lines that seem very similar but in fact are not, and then all of a sudden he’ll change the key, perhaps in the middle of a phrase, and sometimes in the middle of a word!”
This is the second time Director Roger Hodgman has taken on 'Assassins', with the first being in 1995.
“He’s said that ever since he finished that show, he’s been trying to find a way to do it again,” Luke says.
In the current political climate, a work of theatre about how far alienated individuals will go to topple political structures has hardly lost relevance.
“World politics as it is at the moment is pretty chaotic, and what I got when I first read the play was that a lot of people get angry and a lot of people get frustrated at their lot in life and the way that the big wigs control everything,” Luke says.
“But for a person to go that extra step and take out a gun and try and solve their problems that way – it’s madness. And you can’t legislate for madness, you can’t prepare for it, it’s something that just happens – it’s a click.”
The Proprietor appears in each would-be assassin’s life at just the right time to agitate their madness, give them that extra little push to fix their individual dilemmas.
Image © Cameron Campbell
“He immediately recognises the struggles that they’re having, the anger that those struggles are causing, the frustration that they’re having, and he magnifies it,” Luke says.
“I am that point of decision that says, 'why don’t you do this? This will make it all better. It’s in the constitution: you’ve got the right to be happy'.”
But Sondheim himself says the lyric “everybody’s got the right to be happy” is inconsistent with the US constitution, which states every citizen has the right to pursue happiness.
“They’ve only got the right to chase it,” Luke says. “But these people think, 'No, I have the right to be it!' It’s a short step for them to pick up a gun and point it at the President.”
And that’s where Sondheim’s musical magic comes in, pulling just the right nostalgic heartstrings to place the audience in the same mental space as the crazies.
“How often do you hear a song played on the radio that makes you remember a specific point in time and a specific way you were feeling in that point in time?” Luke asks.
Suddenly, aliens of polite society are humanised just a little.
Not for too long, of course.
“[Assassination] is not a thing to do, and the reason that this is not a way to solve your problems is because it doesn't solve problems for these people,” Luke says.
“Not one of them got what they wanted. They caused a whole heap of sorrow, but eventually, the country went back to the way it was, the way it was going to be.”
'Assassins' plays 16 June-1 July at the Heath Ledger Theatre.