Ever since the Hayes Theatre Co opened its doors in Potts Point, Sydney – a small-scale venue dedicated to musical theatre – people have been asking when it was going to stage a musical by the great, massively influential Stephen Sondheim. Finally, three years since it began shaking up the musical theatre scene in Sydney, the Hayes is producing Sondheim’s Assassins. “There is a lot of pressure running a musical theatre venue, and it was about choosing the right Sondheim at the right time,” says David Campbell, one of the producers who run the Hayes.

David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Photograph © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

“An opportunity came along to look at a Sondheim piece and the crux was Lisa [Campbell, his wife and fellow producer] and Dean [Bryant, the director] going, ‘this is a pretty fortuitous time to do Assassins considering the state of the world, particularly the state of politics in America and the state of public discourse in America’, and so it was a bit of a no-brainer really.”

First staged in 1991, Assassins is a darkly entertaining, revue-style musical about nine man and women who have tried to kill US presidents, four of them successfully. Among them are actor and Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln during a theatre performance in 1865; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a hippie in thrall to Charles Manson who pointed a gun (with no bullets) at Gerald Ford in 1975 to make people listen to her environmental message; John Hinckley Jr. who tried to take out Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress Jodie Foster; and the clinically depressed, failed communist Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F. Kennedy in 1963.

There’s also the suicidal Samuel Byck who planned to hijack a 747 at the Baltimore Washington International Airport and crash it into the White House in 1974. New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company had actually started rehearsing a Broadway revival when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. A decision was made to postpone the production, which finally opened in 2004.

When Lisa Campbell first discussed the musical with Bryant – who directed the Hayes’s award-winning productions of Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors – he desperately wanted to do it, but as the Artistic Associate at Melbourne Theatre Company and the Associate Director of the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make the time.

“I’ve wanted to do it since I was 17. The very first thing I ever directed was Sondheim’s Company when I was 17 years old at Melbourne Uni before I went to WAAPA so that was kind of the show that made me go, ‘yes, directing is what I want to do’. I listened to all the Sondheim works and at that point Assassins was relatively recent,” says Bryant.

“It’s not dissimilar to Company in that it’s revue-like. There’s not really a story line as much as a collection of sketches and ideas and commentary songs. It’s like the pop culture version of Company so [I thought] ‘I’ve got to get to that one day’. And then time goes on. I have done another Sondheim – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – but apart from that when do you get to do a Sondheim professionally? It’s so rare.”

“So, when Lisa said that they thought their first Sondheim was going to happen with the Hayes, and asked if I wanted to do it, I was like, ‘I really want to, but I’m full-time at MTC now and I’ve already been out for Opera Australia this year [directing Two Weddings, One Bride] and also Priscilla [which he oversees around the world and will help restage when the 10th anniversary production opens in Melbourne in January]. But I went to [MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy] and said, ‘look this is a show I’ve been dying to do for such a long time, this will be my only chance. David [Campbell] is on board to do it. I feel this is what you are a director for and if I miss it, it won’t come again’, so it was great that I could shuffle around my commitments to get here and delve into the material,” says Bryant.

There’s no doubt that Assassins feels timely, given the level of anger and resentment in today’s deeply divided America, the obsession with celebrity, and the amount of gun violence.

Director Dean Bryant and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth. Photograph © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

“It’s probably the first time in our lives that the idea of shooting a president doesn’t seem completely crazy. There’s two sides to every story [Trump] would say himself [as he did regarding the protests in Charlottesville] so, bizarrely, we’re coming at Assassins with the point of view that we actually are empathising with these homicidal maniacs. And, of course, they’re terrible, screwed up people but in every piece of theatre your job is to find the empathetic parts of them, to make an audience go, ‘oh god, I understand that person, which means there’s something in me that’s like that person, which means I’m not separate from them’. So, I think the timing’s great to approach it and the space is perfect,” says Bryant.

“From its invention with Sweet Charity, the Hayes has been the place where you get to do the smart musical theatre material without the pressure of selling tickets, and with Sondheim that’s the ideal way – it means that we get to do a professional Sondheim with only 110 people having to come each night.”

Assassins had a brief season of concerts for the Encores! in New York in July. Around the same time a production of Julius Caesar made headlines for its inclusion of a Trump-like Caesar triggering protests.

“That was crazy. I found that amazing especially when you follow through the premise of Julius Caesar,” says Bryant. “[Shakespeare was] saying that the assassination of that Emperor was a bad thing and there were terrible repercussions. The play does not present it as a suggestion. Our entire entertainment industry is set up to show us dramatic and terrible things happening for us to experience them at a remove so we don’t have to live it in life. Part of the reason drama was invented was catharsis, i.e. people on stage live out your darkest feelings to keep civilisation calm – seeing people assassinate a President is presumably meant to take the pressure off people wanting to do that kind of thing.”

Musically, the show is full of catchy melodies ranging from Sousa marches and cakewalks to show tunes and pop ballads, drawing on the era in which each assassin lived.

“It’s brilliant. It’s kind of the most accessible of the Sondheims in a way because he’s deliberately pastiching popular music of over a century so even if you don’t know the songs you know the style of music. You know what a cake walk is, you know what a Carpenter-esque ballad is. And what better to hang this group of disparate people who lived over 150 years together than to use the tapestry of music to do that?” says Bryant.

The score will be performed by a band of five led by Andrew Worboys. “It’s a great band of crack musicians, most of whom have worked on shows of mine before, which is exciting. And also, two of the actors are musos as well so that’s working really well,” says Bryant.

Hannah Fredericksen, David Campbell and Martin Crewes are in the cast of the Hayes’ Assassins. Photograph © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

Bryant has gathered a terrific cast including David Campbell, Kate Cole, Martin Crewes, Bobby Fox, Hannah Fredericksen and Justin Smith among others.

“It’s a brilliant cast,” says Andrew Hallsworth who is choreographing the production. “They all stand on their own two feet, which is great because we don’t have a lot of time to rehearse. But it’s falling out fast onto the floor.”

“They are very cohesive for some reason,” says Bryant. “The first time I looked at them on the floor I was like, ‘oh this is a group of people who match, who fit together, whose energy fuses really nicely together.’ No rehearsals are ever easy but it felt a lot more in the groove [early in rehearsals] than other things we’ve worked on. Some things we’ve had to wrestle to the ground a little more. This one feels it’s unveiling its truth a little easier.”

Bryant and Hallsworth have developed a close, shorthand working relationship having collaborated on many productions including Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors for the Hayes, Anything Goes and Two Weddings, One Bride for Opera Australia, as well as Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, co-choreographed with the late Ross Coleman.

“It’s kind of an ability to be able to operate on the floor simultaneously with no negotiation. As soon as one starts talking, you just naturally hand-ball back and forth. I’ll do scenes now and be like ‘Andy can you just have a look at that?’ There may be nothing musical about it, it’s just to get that perspective on the physical shape of what’s happening,” says Bryant.

Where a show like Priscilla has big production numbers, Assassins poses a very different challenge for a choreographer. “I love this kind of thing where you’ve got to find the [right physical language] for the actors and work out how everyone is going to be walking, and their posture, and investing in the physical through the story-telling,” says Hallsworth.

“There are so many different eras in it, from John Wilkes Booth through to John Hinckley, so just through time the physicality is different given what clothes you’d wear, or things like how lazy people were getting in the 70s. Your spine is either up and erect [for the 19th century scenes], then it became very fluid and relaxed [in the 1970s]. People spoke differently, he rhythm of the voice changed and the physicality added to that – so we’re exploring all that.”

Assassins plays at the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point, Sydney until October 22