by DREW ROWSOME - Photos by Jonathan Elull 17 October 2017
"This far into my career, the highlight of my day or the week is still going into a music room with a bunch of friends and colleagues and artists to sing music together and share ideas and create something special," says Ryan Kelly of his role in Beyond Boundaries's concert staging of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. "And the part. I get to play a dream role."
Assassins places infamous assassins in a sideshow/vaudeville setting where they sing their motivations and regrets. As it is Sondheim, it is rigorously intellectual and utterly captivating. Kelly (Gash!, The Normal Heart, Dancing Queen, The Trouble with Henry) plays John Wilkes Booth. "I've had 'The Ballad of Booth' in my songbook since I was 21," he says, "and I've never created the opportunity to sing it at an audition or anything. He was extremely passionate about how he felt. He thought he was doing it right, both his side of the war and for his country. Sondheim has suggested that each character in the show has a fatal flaw and Booth's is misdirected passion. If he'd put the passion into his acting career instead of into bringing Lincoln down, history and his life may have been very, very different."
Kelly does not ignore the parallel. "He was very passionate about his politics, as am I, so it's relatable. That's the scary thing, that it's so relatable. You don't necessarily want to relate to the white supremacists or the man who fought for slave ownership, or brought down the president. It's unsettling for me as a person but as an actor, it's easy stuff to get your teeth into. It's not going to make me change my view on the alt-right, but that's a thing for all of us: we've all got guns in our pockets at rehearsal, flailing them around, pointing them at each other. And we're like, 'Are we going to point them at the audience? Is it too soon? Is it going to make people uncomfortable?' For me as an artist, I'm all about making people uncomfortable. Pushing the envelope that way."
In this day and age there is, alas, the chance that "pushing the envelope" can lead to, pun intended in this case, triggering an audience. "I've wanted to do this show since the first time I heard it but it gets done so rarely, probably because of the subject matter," says Kelly. "Christopher Wilson [who plays Leon Czolgosz as well as producing] and I were throwing around ideas and I said, 'Oh my god, we have to do Assassins. There's no better time for it.' We had no idea at that time that things like Vegas were going to happen. And of course the word out there is that 'Now is not the time to talk about it.' But we're not the type of artist to look at things and think that, we're more apt to go, 'This is the time.' So that's what we're doing."
And they are not alone in their daring, Assassins has a star-studded cast. "We had a lot of luck. And good energy," says Kelly, noting that everyone is working for free as it is a benefit. "It's a chance to do shows that people would never otherwise get a chance to do. And when people saw what show we were doing . . . It worked out perfectly between a number of people's contracts and obligations. I can't believe the cast. It's a great combination of newcomers in the industry and some of us old horses still in the race."
Kelly can barely contain himself as he rhymes off some of his fellow assassins. "AJ Bridel [Kinky Boots] and Chris know each other, she was coming back from Charlottetown after playing Anne in Anne of Green Gables. She was doing a workshop in town and has another show in a month so it just happened to fit. And she's perfect in the part. She's killing Squeeky Fromme. And hearing her and Lizzie Kurtz in their scene together . . . As Sara Jane Moore, Lizzie is brilliant. The show is very, very funny which I think is what makes it acceptable. Geoffrey Tyler who is brilliant, sang the balladeer in a production and a few workshops, so he's really familiar. He also plays Lee Harvey Oswald so I get a really juicy number with him towards the end. Chris and David Michael Moote [Jesus Christ Superstar] are pals. He's really, really trained vocally. He's an incredible singer. Jonathan Elull is off the charts as Sam Byck. Marisa McIntyre and David Lopez are solid, solid performers. Marisa as Emma Goldman is deliciously subversive."
All of them are enjoying tackling Sondheim's ambitious score. "It is challenging," says Kelly. "It's really hard. I've done the music in the score for 20-odd years and I know it from listening to it. But people having to learn it. It's not any more Sondheim-y than any other of his musicals but it's got it's Sondheim moments where there is melody and intervals that seem completely out of the blue. But if you take time, everything is placed so exactly and so deliberately in order to tell the story that he is trying to tell. We've got our work cut out for us."
Of course Sondheim is also known for meticulous scoring. "We're using a piano, Guistin MacLean our accompanist is really great," says Kelly. "And we're whistling throughout the show. And our voices. And the church acoustics are huge. There are a few sound cues, there's a lot of gunshots through the show - we needed help with that. There's something really exciting about concert stagings. A lot is left to the imagination of the audience. One hope that when does a pared-down show you give a lot of credit to the audience to suspend their disbelief. There's a little bit of business, we have some props but we wanted to keep it simple. The year we did Into the Woods, I brought my family to the movie and my Mom then came to the show and she said, 'Oh. I understand the story so much better.' Simplicity often makes storytelling better. And we've got some very smart people on stage who can create out of thin air."