BY LAURA HUMBLE – ARTS & LEISURE EDITOR
Earlier this year, DramaCentre announced they will produce Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins as the spring term musical.
Assassins depicts the group of men and women who have either successfully assassinated or unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate former presidents of the United States. The show opened off Broadway in 1990, and, after an extensive script revision, opened on Broadway in 2004. It went on to receive five Tony awards.
Because they are so expensive to produce, Centre only puts on one musical every four academic years (the last one being Drood in the spring of 2012). As such, the announcement of this upcoming musical was highly anticipated.
There are several noteworthy reasons as to why students are particularly excited about the choice of Assassins.
“Sondheim is very reputable,” one student said (students were assured of anonymity so they would feel comfortable talking to members of the Cento about this issue). “From what I hear, this show is interesting and eye-grabbing.”
“I think it’s one of Sondheim’s best musicals. I’m really excited about it,” another student said. “I have no idea how they’re going to do it and that interests me a lot. It’s especially interesting because we have an election coming up, and this musical is hypercritical of the U.S.”
“I had never heard of it before,” a third student said. “But this is what professors are supposed to do: explore things that aren’t necessarily mainstream. I know it’s going to be an incredible experience.”
“There’s definitely a reason that it was chosen. I think part of it was that it is a really interesting play and has beautiful music,” another student said. “It’s a good choice because it’s an interesting production. It tells interesting stories and tells them well.”
All across the board, students are excited about Charles T. Hazelrigg Professor of Dramatic Arts, Dr. Patrick Kagan-Moore’s interpretation of the show.
“Patrick doesn’t like musicals, so when he’s going to want to pick a musical, he wants to pick something with meat,” a student said. “The last time Patrick did a musical… everyone loved it. History might repeat itself.”
“Matthew [Hallock] is an expert in Sondheim, and Patrick is a great director. I have confidence that it will be well done,” another student said.
Despite these visionaries at the helm, student still have their doubts about the choice. Reactions by students in the drama department have been mixed since the production was announced last spring.
The main source of the controversy involves the casting: Assassins typically features a very heavily male cast. Of a cast of 13 notable characters, only three of them are women. Thus, there is not much opportunity for an onstage representation of strong female characters, a criticism that has been brought up in past DramaCentre productions.
“I’m a Sondheim fan, so I recognize that Assassins is a very audience-friendly musical. It’s very entertaining; you can learn something… That being said, I find for a school of this size and with a drama department that is made up like ours, it is a bit of an odd choice, but not a terrible choice. It’s a musical that is not too terribly difficult, but gender-wise, I don’t think it reflects the department as it stands,” a student said.
In the current drama department, of the students who have declared, there are nine majors—three women and five men. There are five minors, all of whom are women.
“I wish that [Assassins] had more parts for women because when a large part of the students that participate in the dramatic program, especially on the acting side, are women, and you have one opportunity to be in a musical production, it’s disheartening when that opportunity is limited,” another student said. “It’s also a very androcentric play. Most of the complex characters in it are men.”
Presumably, many characters in the show will have to be “gender bent,” meaning that characters originally written as men will be played by female actors in the DramaCentre production. This practice does allow for more women to take part in the production, but it does not wholly fix the problem. There is a remarkable absence of complex female characters on stage. This is an undeniable fact.
“While the department is conscious of casting women, they still choose plays prominently inhabited by men. The women they cast don’t get the opportunity to portray complex women on stage. They have to take on men and that’s not fair to them as artists,” a student said.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to ask for a more conscious effort to be made in the consideration [of choosing a production],” another student said.
This same student wishes to clarify that he or she does not feel this is in any way a conscious failing of the drama professors.
“I never think of it as malicious. They’re never trying to keep women in this department from shining,” this person said.
This issue of a lack of complex female characters mirrors a larger, global issue.
“Conversations like this are happening all over the world of playwriting and theatre about the lack of female playwrights and how that affects the dearth of the lack of women on stage. I think the conversations at Centre reflect a broader trend and concern in the world of theatre,” one student said.
Thus, this is in no way solely a failing at Centre, but a reflection of a much larger issue in the world of contemporary theatre that should be remedied. Until it is, however, drama programs and theatre companies will have to combat these issues internally.
“For students who have issues with the way that things are being handled or feel that there’s a disparity—go and talk with the professors, they want to know your concerns,” a student said.
Unfortunately, the drama faculty declined to provide comment on this issue.
Despite reluctances from some students in the dramatic arts program, not one has any doubt that the spring musical will be a vibrant and engaging spectacle, towards which we all will look forward to seeing.