Stephen Sondheim is not known for his bankable concepts. He’s written Broadway musicals about a cannibal barber (“Sweeney Todd”), an ugly Italian woman whose love goes unrequited (“Passion”) and the story of a broken friendship that’s told backwards (“Merrily We Roll Along”).
But his hardest sell ever was “Assassins,” about about those who have attempted to kill presidents, which opened in 1991. “Hey, pal, feeling blue?” goes the first lyric. “Don’t know what to do? Hey, pal, I mean you. Come here and kill a president!” “Cats,” it is not.
The dark show’s cast of criminals includes John Wilkes Booth, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Lee Harvey Oswald. To give you an idea of what these ne’er-do-wells are serving up, John Hinckley Jr. and Fromme sing a romantic duet to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson called “Unworthy of Your Love.”
“I have had great theatrical experiences, but ‘Assassins’ outweighs them all,” original cast member Patrick Cassidy told The Post. “Getting to originate a Sondheim/[John] Weidman show is every actor’s dream.”
The musical’s reputation has skyrocketed since it first premiered off-Broadway at the tiny Playwrights Horizons to a mixed review from the New York Times’ Frank Rich, and running just 73 performances. “Assassins” later won the Best Revival Tony Award in 2004, and for its 30th anniversary, the original cast is reuniting virtually Monday night at 8 p.m. as part of the free online “Studio Tenn Talks: Conversations With Patrick Cassidy” series.
Cassidy, who has also starred on Broadway in “42nd Street” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” has brought together actors Victor Garber, Annie Golden, Debra Monk, Terrence Mann and more, along with Sondheim, Weidman, musical director Paul Gemignani and director Jerry Zaks, to share memories of their controversial show and sing a few songs.
The experience is bubbling up fond and strange memories for Cassidy.
“People would ask me, ‘What is ‘Assassins’ about?,” he said of the early days. “I said, ‘Well, it’s a musical . . . about the presidential assassins.’ And everybody steps back and goes, ‘Really?’ ”
He added: “It was scary. There was a real fear of it.”
One woman in the audience was so terrified, she loudly announced her departure while Cassidy was still singing.
The actor played a folk-singer narrator called the Balladeer, and during a number about Charles Guiteau, the lawyer who killed President James A. Garfield, she just lost it.
“After [Giuseppe] Zangara, [who attempted to kill president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt], is electrocuted, I sing the song ‘The Ballad of Guiteau,’ ” he said. “He’s walking up to the gallows, getting higher and higher, and I remember toward the end of the number hearing a woman say, ‘Norman, Norman, they’re gonna hang him! I gotta get outta here, Norman!’ ”