Continuing its stunning series of chamber musicals, Black Swan State Theatre Company is bringing Stephen Sondheim’s biting satire Assassins to the Ledger Theatre in June with legendary Australian director Roger Hodgman at the helm.

Roger Hodgman

Being Sondheim, you can expect the subject matter to be challenging and the music discombobulating and superb.

Assassins looks into the uneasy heart of the American love affair with notoriety, fame and, of course, guns. It imagines the conversations of would-be assassins including Lynne “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to kill the US President Gerald Ford in 1975 to prove her love to cult leader Charles Manson. Add John Hinckley to the list. He attempted to kill US President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress actress Jodie Foster with over whom he had obsessed since her role in Taxi Driver.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of examples and they reverberate through time.

Roger, who spoke to Medical Forum recently, admits to being a little obsessed himself with the excellence of Sondheim’s work. The theatre legend, whose intelligence and deep theatre knowledge transformed the Melbourne Theatre Company into the powerhouse it is today during the 15 years he was associated with it, has in more recent times become something of the go-to director for opera and musicals.

And Sondheim is a writer he has often returned to. He has met and spoken to the composer about his work on a number of occasions and Roger is always fascinated by the insights Sondheim has to offer.

Mackenzie Dunn as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in Assassins. Photo: Cameron Etchells

“This is the third time I have reprised a Sondheim musical and he asked me which one was my favourite. Well I had to say that A Little Night Music was the most successful, while Sweeney Todd was the most amazing but I have an extraordinary soft spot for Assassins (which is probably wrong word!).”

“Sondheim jumped in and said of all the musicals he’d done, it was the only one he wouldn’t change if he did it again. I don’t think he meant it was his best but one that he thought was complete, which is interesting because it wasn’t hugely successful.”

“On the eve of its Broadway season, the first Iraq war broke out and I think the show’s connections were a bit scared of its topicality. It had a fairly successful season in the early 2000s but even then I think the Americans found its subject matter tricky.”

Roger said this intriguing tale is treated with great wit and humour as well as seriousness.

“The lyrics are so sharp and the music at times so achingly beautiful and yet there is this dark distortion of the American dream. There is an edge throughout.”

What stirs Roger’s creative juices is Sondheim never says the same thing twice.

“Each one of his works is different to the other and yet there is a definitive Sondheim sound. I started directing Sondheim musicals when he was the kiss of death but audiences have grown to love them.”

“He will never be as commercial as a Lloyd Webber but there’s always a Sondheim show playing somewhere in the world and the man, himself, is very good at encouraging performers to do different things with them. I think is he one of the most significant writers for theatre of the second half of the 20th century.”

“His work is intriguing – you discover new things all the time.”

Apparently, not unlike the puzzles Sondheim creates in is ‘spare time’. Roger said he is famous for having introduced cryptic crosswords to North America and loves inventing puzzles and board games.

“You find that in the music. Every time there is a beautiful melody he cuts it off before the end. He is a restless spirit that I find fascinating.”

Heath Ledger Theatre, June 16-July 1. MF performance, June 16, 7.30pm

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