An Interview with ACT’s Artistic Director John Langs

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What was your first experience with Assassins and how does that inform your approach today?

I worked on a production of Assassins in college with [set designer] Brian Bembridge—and Brian and I have continued to work together for 20 years. It was a powerful early theatre experience for me, one of those times when I dropped into the power of language as carried by music, and its ability to open people up to mystery. There’s a lot of magic in the piece, something a little mysterious and sinister, but incredibly appealing. I think that those early impulses and feelings have traveled with me through the years.

How do you think the container of Sondheim’s music and those American themes inform the content?

The character of The Balladeer in this production is the all-American troubadour, but his job is to tell the story of historical assassins. It’s a way for Sondheim to say: Open your heart to this music, to America, and now take a look at what’s really there.

Which ties into the big question: why do Assassins now?

We chose the musical in an election year deliberately. ACT proves itself over and over again to not be adverse to risk; it’s a place where we want to have conversations— and certainly gun control has, most recently and very tragically in our country, become a flashpoint. I think the thing that’s still true about America is that there is a promise that if you work hard, you will get ahead. And when people find out that promise to them is broken, sometimes they will do extreme things to manifest that which they cannot through acts of goodness. [In Assassins] you have a bunch of people who are seeking celebrity, or a place in history, or a moment to matter, because they’ve been so absolutely disenfranchised. I think when we created the American promise, we inadvertently created the possibility of a broken promise, and these [characters] are people who bought into that promise, and feel that it’s been out of their reach.

What unique or additional artistic opportunities are afforded to you by working with The 5th Avenue Theatre?

What the leadership at The 5th Avenue brings is a terrific discussion about the form of musical theatre, and there’s a wonderful debate in order to find a show that fits the missions of both theatres. If you stripped the music out of Assassins, you would still have a story that was compelling and fascinating; the poetry, depth of language, and ambition of the discussion is revelatory—and that is what ACT looks for in a play. I think the sweetness of Assassins is this musical spoonful of sugar to help it begin to go down easier before it opens up underneath you, and speaks in a more powerful way—because music is a conduit to the heart that’s so immediate. That’s what makes this a perfect thing here.

What do you see as the most exciting or challenging aspects of directing this musical?

I’ve never directed any of these actors before. I’ve admired their work in a lot of what I’ve seen around town, [but] they’re all new to me. And that’s thrilling! I began the process with a great deal of enthusiasm and also the humility to know that there are relationships that have to be built.

Is there anything that you want people to know about Assassins before they watch it?

I think that there’s sort of a dark magic woven into this piece, I really do. It is a satire, not a celebration. Great art stirs you up and can make you angry. But after the anger comes the conversation. After the heartache comes a sort of epiphany. And I think that’s what this play offers really well.


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