No Refund Theatre Presents: ‘Assassins’

No Refund Theatre (NRT) concluded its catalog of shows for the spring semester with its presentation of “Assassins.” Students can catch a showing beginning on Thursday, April 11, until Saturday, April 13.

“Assassins” opened as an off-Broadway musical with writing and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert Jr. NRT’s production is directed by Ally Jean Setliff and Ryder Quiggle with music direction from Jason Scansaroli and choreography by Teagan Palatt.

The show is written as a revue and examines the personalities and motives of the historical figures who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate presidents of the United States. Sondheim’s show explores what the presence of a close group of assassins in American history says about the ideals of the country as a whole. The show’s music is written to reflect both popular music of the various depicted eras the individual assassins lived in and also provides a broader outline of stereotypically patriotic American music.

“Assassins” opens in a shooting gallery where the soon-to-be presidential assassins enter the stage. The characters are enticed by the Proprietor of the game to play, promising that their problems will be solved by killing a president. As the misfits are given their guns one by one, John Wilkes Booth enters last, and the Proprietor begins to distribute ammunition. The assassins take aim as “Hail to the Chief” ushers in Abraham Lincoln’s arrival offstage where Booth excuses himself from the group. A shot rings out in the room and Booth shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis!”

The show continues to outline the experiences of the assassins in a similar way, including Charles Guiteau’s vying to be the United States Ambassador to France, Leon Czolgosz, singing a barbershop quartet about a gun’s power to “change the world,” and quoting Ronald Reagan poking fun at John Hinckley’s lousy marksmanship.

“Assassins” ultimately culiminates in a scene set in 1963 at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, more famously known as Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point for his assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The ghosts of both the successful and unsuccessful assassins compel Oswald to vindicate them and ensure they go down in history, eventually convincing the initially hesitant Oswald to kill the president.

The show’s co-director, Setliff knew from the get-go she wanted to bring one of Sondheim’s lesser-known, under-appreciated Broadway shows to the NRT stage.

“In the theme of doing shows that are a little lesser known, this is a Stephen Sondheim show, but it’s probably his least famous work and it’s a bit of a notorious flop. They do revivals of this production all the time, and it just doesn’t ever seem to do well,” she said. “Ryder and I sat down and looked at that and we were like, ‘That’s perfect for NRT,’ just because we feel like this is a space for experimentation in theater, but also it’s a space for the underdog and the things that aren’t usually the most popular or the top choice.”

“So yeah, we just thought this type of show reflected that — it’s such a hidden gem in the Broadway canon,” Setliff continued.

As for the show’s writing, the revue style without an overarching storyline and instead a series of loosely interconnected acts made the directorial process more unique and challenging to approach in rehearsal for Setliff and her cast.

“It was definitely interesting to manage so many moving parts especially [as] we’ve cut the ensemble from this version,” Setliff said. “The actors we already have are doubling in the ensemble roles. There’s a lot going on.”

“Just going through rehearsals and being really clear about where each scene is set, what time period we’re in…[and] the aesthetic of the music or the era… At the same time, it does exist in limbo,” she continued.

As for the show itself, “Assassins” is written as a musical with a score, combining spoken dialogue with singing, acting, and dance. NRT typically limits its theatrical repertoire to plays, and Setliff spoke more about the challenges of directing a show with a musical component, particularly with a cast that’s more experienced with productions of plays.

“What really made it different was being able to work together with people who had a skill set that I didn’t and just marry those different abilities…and bring in different perspectives,” Setliff said. “Ash, our assistant director who’s an actress has a different perspective than Tegan, our choreographer who has a background in dance, but they can still comment on the same things and we can come up with new ideas from that.”

“Something that I think is very different — a little challenging, but also ultimately very special, is the collaboration that comes with a lot of people,” she said.

The show’s other co-director, sophomore Quiggle, echoed similar difficulties and unique challenges of getting actors to come together for some of the show’s scenes after spending much of their time on stage developing apart.

“The biggest challenge that comes with [the revue style] is you’re looking at the assassins before and after their assassination attempts. Some of the assassins die during their attempts and you then have to see them after and they have to behave in a way that doesn’t — they obviously aren’t aware of their death,” he said. “It’s difficult to direct actors to perform a character that’s already died in the eyes of the audience. It’s also difficult to direct characters that are interacting with people who were alive 100 years later than them.”

“John Booth and Sarah Jane Moore were alive over 100 years at different times and you have to direct them to act alongside each other. A lot of that has helped by the setting of the show being limbo and kind of this ‘timeless’ era,” he continued.

Quiggle also discussed the unique approach he took with members of the cast to help them understand how their characters fit in and should behave, particularly when many of them would’ve never met each other in real life.

“I remember…talking to Ethan, who played John Wilkes Booth, about how you can think about [him] kind of as a character from ‘Back to the Future’ and that he’s ‘out of time.’ It’s a weird pop culture reference to throw in for this show, but that helped Ethan figure out how his character is brooding and orchestrating the whole thing,” Quiggle said.

Quiggle also touched upon directing characters who are based, in part, on real people whom the audience already has their thoughts and understandings of. In particular, in terms of the show’s approach to helping cast members break away from strict historical accuracy.

“The biggest challenge with that early on was we have to convince the cast members to break away from historical accuracy,” Quiggle said. “Some shows kind of swing to stick to that…and we decided that wasn’t as important for our [production] because the script is largely dramatized.”

“So you have to kind of convince the cast that, ‘Hey, you’re playing characterized versions of these people,'” he continued.

The challenges of approaching characters that exist in the minds of audience members, too, also came with additional challenges for the show’s directorial staff.

“Past that, you have to convince the audience to break away from historical accuracy. [The audience is] walking in and seeing people that don’t look like the assassins that they know… So, early on in the show process, and early on in the show in the scenes, we try to convince the audience to get used to our versions of these characters,” Quiggle said.

“If you think about ‘Everybody’s Got the Right,’ which is the opening number and scene three…when they’re all at the bar and the bottle breaks… You can think about it as they’re reintroducing themselves and erasing what the audience knows for the next 90 minutes,” he continued.

“Because the show kind of takes its time with each character’s assassination attempt, you see them as the assassin that they are and not the actor performing them, and you’re no longer thinking ‘that person doesn’t look like John Wilkes Booth. That person doesn’t look like Giuseppe Zangara.'”

Sophomore Adam Tinkelman plays the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in NRT’s production. Tinkelman spoke about the danger of the production and the clear warning message it poses for members of the audience to think more about.

“I do think that it’s important to remember that all of these people are just regular human beings… All of them are relatable people — they all lived relatively normal lives. In that relatability is where it becomes so sinister,” he said. “You could mistake for your neighbor or your classmate or your teacher or something can do something so heinous. I do think that the idea is that it should resonate a little bit just because it’s a reminder to the audience [that] these people aren’t far off from the ones you usually see every day.”

Tinkelman also spoke about playing a role that was the most recent in the audience’s minds, particularly as the last “successful” presidential assassin, but expanded upon the challenges of the character’s relatively short amount of screen time in the show overall.

“I think most people equate the size of your role to how much time you have on stage. Lee Harvey Oswald has very little time on stage in the show, and yet he’s one of the biggest, most climactic characters. He is the crux, everything depends on him,” he said.

“I do think that going into it, I had that mindset of ‘I may not have a lot of time on stage, but by God, you gotta give it your all’ because he is the reason, at least in the universe of the show, why people remember any of these assassins,” Tinkelman continued. “He’s the one who brings it back into the public eye.”

Like the show’s directors, he also spoke about the importance of playing a role not based in fiction where audience members come to the show with their own ideas about his character.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot that’s different just because we’re not getting into his life,” he said. “On the other side of that as well is, you know, he murdered a president, he also murdered a police officer, so I don’t give a shit if I portray him correctly. He was a bad person and he’s gonna get what I give him, you know, but, of course, you don’t want to treat it as a joke.”

The production’s music director, Scansaroli, touched on that, although the club typically sticks with doing more traditional plays, the switch to a musical and perfecting the show’s score was not too much of a challenge for the production.

“Honestly, [there’s] not too much. The other club that I do things with, the Thespians, who do two musicals a year… A lot of the people that audition for musicals there often audition for the musicals here,” he said. “In terms of prepping for the cast and those who I work with, I know what to expect, and I understand who I’m working with well enough that I don’t have to change too much.”

“The biggest change is usually in the space that we’re in is a lot different acoustically than Schwab Auditorium, and we don’t have microphones here. It’s a little different from that perspective, and I have to change some things that I do from there… Despite being a club that does mostly all plays, we still have a very strong musical foundation as well,” Scansaroli continued.

The show’s unique structure also translates differently to the stage than other musicals, and Scansaroli had to tweak his creative process to match.

“It’s definitely different than your average musical just because there’s not a lot of ensemble type singing. There’s not a lot of big group stuff,” he said. “Usually, if I’m music directing something, I’ll sit down with the cast with all the big group numbers and say, ‘Alright, sopranos: here’s your part, Altos, here’s your part. Tenors, baritones…’ With this show, it’s a little different because it’s mostly solo-driven.”

“The biggest trick was the interpretation, especially with a Sondheim musical like this, where he wrote the music and the lyrics. He’s very particular and so the lyrics mean a lot more than a usual composer’s lyric would dictate,” Scansaroli continued.

“The other trick you run into is listening to the cast recording over and over… We had to make sure that we were learning the music from the Broadway recording but not copying exactly what they did and there was certainly a learning curve with that,” he said.

In NRT’s production, freshman Tyler Strow plays the role of Charles Guiteau who infamously shot and killed James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. In “Assassins,” Guiteau is contrasted pretty directly to the others in the group of misfits as a more positive and idealistic character, and Strow commented on the experience of being a different person in the rehearsal room.

“I definitely get my energy off other people. It was kind of weird to have to create my own ‘funny side’ to it…and make myself stick out a little bit,” he said. “That was a difficult thing to do for sure.”

As always, No Refund Theatre offers its shows free of charge to anyone interested in attending. Showings of “Assassins” will take place at 9 p.m. beginning on Thursday, April 10, with two additional shows slated for 8 p.m. on April 12 and 13. All shows will take place in Forum 111.

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About the Author

Luke Pieczynski

Luke is a junior accounting major hailing from Pittsburgh, PA, and is Onward State's social media manager. He can often be found in the Starbucks line waiting for a nitro cold brew, or listening to one of Dua Lipa's latest releases. He's a fiercely loyal Sheetz Freak and will not settle for another Pennsylvania gas station. Please send your best political thriller to him on Twitter @lukepie11 or to his email [email protected].

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