Actors who bring the macabre to life on Broadway as a presidential assassin and a pedophiliac serial killer on Sunday contend for Broadway's highest honors, the Tony Awards. Denis O'Hare's musical performance in Assassins and Brian F. O'Byrne's dramatic turn in Frozen challenge audiences to examine attitudes on acceptance, morality, and forgiveness in shows that took uncommon paths to Broadway. Assassins out composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's clever historical study of assassins and would-be assassins of U.S. presidents, was first staged at the New York off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons in 1990. After refinements and regional productions across the country it was finally scheduled for a Broadway production in 2001. But the plan was shelved following the September 11 attacks that year, as the subject of domestic terror was considered too sensitive for those times. The show finally opened in April.
One of the would-be assassins portrayed, Samuel Byck, planned to hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House to kill President Richard Nixon. Even now, audiences are conflicted over how to react to the high-spirited show, which is beautifully staged and wonderfully acted yet difficult to applaud. "Not everybody likes it," said O'Hare, who plays Charles Guiteau, a delusional attorney who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881. "People don't know what to say. People are very confused. They are flummoxed. People are moved and at the same time repelled. They laugh and are horrified in the next breath. They don't know what to think."
The set is framed like a roller coaster, suggesting the ride the audience is taken on while the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr., and Squeaky Fromme explain themselves through song and dance in a carnival-type atmosphere. Big production numbers that would normally elicit cheers are instead punctuated by effects that draw stunned silence--the sound of an electrocution, the thumping drop of a body with a thick rope tied around the neck. "It's an interesting way to short-circuit the audience's expectation or experience," said O'Hare. "Wait a second, think about it. What are you applauding? What do you really think? What really just happened?" O'Hare, winner as Best Featured Actor in a play last year for Take Me Out, is nominated as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, a category that includes cast mate Michael Cerveris, who plays Booth, as well as John Cariani (Fiddler on the Roof), Raul Esparza (Taboo), and Michael McElroy (Big River).
Playwright Bryony Lavery's Frozen, which is nominated for Best Play, presents a dramatic triangle revolving around O'Byrne's child killer character, Ralph. O'Byrne lights up the sparse stage as he interacts with an academic exploring his background for research and, in a confrontation 20 years after the fact, with the mother of one of his victims, played with aching authenticity by Swoosie Kurtz. Frozen made the trip to Broadway after opening at the small MCC Theater in New York. "I signed up three months ago for a limited run off-Broadway for 300 bucks a week, and lo and behold, here we are at the Tonys party," said O'Byrne, nominated twice before for The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West.
O'Byrne said audiences seem to be getting an inspirational message from the show, the first one moved to Broadway by MCC artistic directors Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey since starting their theater group in 1986. "I don't think that anybody leaving the theater thinks that the story is just about a serial killer and the way his brain works," said the lanky Irish actor. "I think it is about understanding what forgiveness is: what does it mean to forgive somebody; what does one have to do to forgive; and what is bearable in life and how do we cope with tragedies. It seems to be an uplifting experience." Nominated along with O'Byrne in the Featured Actor in a Play category are Tom Aldredge (Twentieth Century), Ben Chaplin (The Retreat from Moscow), Aidan Gillen (The Caretaker), and Omar Metwally (Sixteen Wounded).