By PAUL SALSINI – Editor Patrick & Victor Garber (Booth) at Assassin's soundtrack recording
Photo: Patrick as Balladeer
(by Barbara Pazmino)
The auditioning process may sound simple for some shows. You walk in, you sing your song and maybe you get the part, maybe you don’t.
For Patrick Cassidy, getting the role of the Balladeer in “Assassins” was an arduous journey he still remembers ten years later. He is now on Broadway as Frank Butler in “Annie Get Your Gun”, but he was interviewed in Chicago while he was touring in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (Dec. 1999). Cassidy recounted the audition process.
“I was doing a workshop in Los Angeles, and somebody said Stephen Sondheim has this new show based on all the presidential assassins. Well, I thought the only part I was right for was Booth, but Victor Garber had already been cast. At that point the Balladeer and Oswald were being performed by the same person, and I knew I wasn’t really right for Oswald.
“But then they said the part’s been changed, and they wanted me to read for just the Balladeer. So they sent me a portion of two verses of the Booth ballad, just to sing. Well nobody had ever heard it; no one knew what the tempo was. It was a nightmare trying to get somebody to teach it to me. But Thank God I had two weeks to prep for the song and they gave me a choice of three different keys. I picked the highest key. Well, the ironic thing is the highest key is a third lower than what we finally did in the show.”
Cassidy learned the song and flew to New York.
“I was so nervous, I was shaking. My throat was dry. Steve knew my father (the actor Jack Cassidy) and my mother (Shirley Jones). My father went to the opening of “A Little Night Music” with him, but I had never met Sondheim to my knowledge. Definitely not as an adult.”
Cassidy auditioned before Sondheim, John Weidman, the author of the book, Jerry Zaks, the director, Paul Gemignani, the conductor, Paul Ford, the pianist, and representatives of Playwrights Horizons.
“I followed the actor Peter Frechette – he auditioned for the part, too. I sang the song four times. Every time Jerry kept taking away from me things that I had prepared. He kept saying, ‘Do less, just say the words’. I was doing all this physical stuff. Then he gave me a little walk to do, and that ultimately ended up in the show.”
Cassidy didn’t get the part the first time.
“They wanted a callback. That was a Monday so I stayed ‘til Wednesday. This time it was just Jerry, so Steve must have been convinced. I sang it about five times, and every time Jerry would say, ‘Do less.’ I waited outside, and he came out and he said, “We want you to do this, but I am going to work you.’”
But Zaks didn’t.
“During the rehearsal process, Jerry didn’t say very much to me and it was frustrating. I’m not sure if he knew what to say to me. Because it’s a difficult part. You’re not sure who the Balladeer is. Is he the narrator? Then why isn’t he there the whole time? What’s his point of view? Is it the same or the opposite of the assassins? Is he a member of the audience? I think Jerry had a problem with this guy, and he chose not to deal with me. But for an actor it was difficult. I felt like I was floundering. Ultimately, I ended up going with my best judgement on who this guy was.”
But even now Cassidy thinks the character could have been more developed.
“If he’s an American folksinger, what does he mean in terms of the whole show? And when he comes out at the end in ‘Another National Anthem’ and they get him offstage, does that mean that the assassins win?”
Sondheim wrote the Balladeer’s part in “the Ballad of Booth” for Cassidy in a higher voice than he usually used for singing.
“I really learned how to sing in ‘Assassins’”, Cassidy said. “I think of myself as a baritone, but I’m not at all. I’m really a lyric baritone. My father always wanted to be a higher baritone, but three packs a day for twenty years can make you drop your register.
“Steve said, ‘I love the way your voice sounds in that place,’ and that became the sound of this character. It was brilliant, because he found the bright part of my voice, and that made the Balladeer so American.”
Unlike some other Sondheim shows, “Assassins” was pretty much completed by the time of rehearsals.
“It was exciting realizing you’re working with your idols, and on a new piece. It was ‘wow!’ The first time I heard Victor sing his part in the ballad, I wept. The lyrics were so glorious – ‘blood in the clover’ – and shocking – ‘niggerlover.’ I was so honored to be singing this song.
(Photo: BMG Records)
“My favorite song is ‘The Ballad of Czolgosz.’ To me it didn’t really take life until the album. We had trouble getting the button on the song onstage and it was hard to stage because I was on one side and he was on the other. But on the album you can hear the whole thing right.”
Cassidy noted that there was originally an alternate opening song besides “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
“The ‘Flag Song’ was this great number, and it was staged so brilliantly. There were five ensemble members, and they played five different viewpoints waiting for a presidential motorcade. You had your activist, your father with a son, your right-wing person. And they talked and argued, and one by one each assassin in period garb would walk out and join the line and wait and wait unti it became a full line of people, and it ended with a gunshot in the dark. The song was nixed pretty quick, and the ‘Flag Song’ wasn’t seen again. I thought it was brilliant, but I think ‘Everybody’s Got the Right’ has more edge.”
[Note: The music for “The Flag Song” has been recycled for the new Sondheim/Weidman show formerly known as ‘Wise Guys’.]
After the opening, “Assassins” had to face critical reviews.
“My mother and I were both with Steve the night of the day the reviews came out. I found it so touching that he was so concerned about John’s welfare, not his own.
“I think the reviews but blinders on people, and that hurt the show. What’s not talked about is that the show is so funny. When we were in previews people were rolling over with laughter. Those monologues that Lee (Wilkof as Byck) did, and the scenes between Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme were hysterical. But the minute the Gulf War broke out, there was silence in the theater.”
Then there was the aborted attempt to move the show to Broadway.
“Everybody hoped to go to Broadway. I got a call that it was going to move, and then I got a call that it wasn’t. It was very strange. At Playwrights, it was small, and I think people wanted it bigger.”
Cassidy got to play Booth when “Assassins” was presented in Los Angeles in 1995.
“I wanted to play that part more than anything. The Balladeer doesn’t speak, he just sings.”
And he was Robert in “Company” in Los Angeles in 1993, with Carol Burnett as Joanne. “That was great, but there wasn’t enough time. Only two weeks to rehearse and two to perform. I was a little young for it then, but I’m ready for it now.”
Cassidy was ready for another Sondheim role, and he still gets emotional talking about it. He auditioned for Giorgio in “Passion”.
“It came down to Jere Shea and me. They wouldn’t see me at first, but my agent fought and I remember going in. Steve was there, James (Lapine), Roger Berlind (a producer). I learned some of the music, and I did one of those auditions where I walked out and I thought I nailed it. I couldn’t have sung it better, acted it better.
“Word came from my agent that I was in high contention. A month went by and I heard nothing. Then I got a call on Wednesday to fly to New York from L.A. on Thursday and audition on Friday. I was tired, and they knew that, but I sang well. I felt it was good, but it didn’t have the magic of the first time.
“Well, I went back to my hotel, and they called twenty minutes later and said Jere got the part. I wept. It was the last time I wept. I don’t know if I’ll ever cry again.
“So I went back to L.A. completely suicidal, and the next morning at 11 a.m. the phone rang. ‘Pat, Steve Sondheim here. I just want you to know I told James I was going to call you. I don’t call actors, but I just want you to know that the margin by which you auditioned from the first time for ‘Assassins’ and this time was incredible.’
“The point of all this is that the call made it all worthwhile. There are a zillion reasons an actor doesn’t get a job. But by him saying that, it made my process as an actor all worth while. I was validated by someone I respect and admire. Sure the gold medal is the prize, getting the job, but it’s OK to get the silver medal.
“Here’s the thing about him. You find that as a performer, you’re a fan. Ultimately, it doesn’t get in the way, but you have those moments, and I did throughout the whole rehearsal process of ‘Assassins’. I’d reflect on the day, usually at lunchtime, and it would dawn on you, wow! I’m such a fan of his work, his music and his lyrics and how he’s changed the theater, and everyone was so honored to be working on this.
“It was the greatest process as an actor and singer that you could go through. You knew you were creating something special, you knew you were working with the best talent in the business, and that’s exciting. So going to work every day was so exciting.”
Cassidy was asked about his father, who was to be cast in the lead role of Gene in the original ‘Saturday Night’ in the mid-fifties. The show never opened.
“My father never mentioned it to me. Steve was the one who told me about it. But I remember my father singing so much of the score, I thought they had actually done the show.”
Should “Assassins” be revived on Broadway?
“Victor and I have joked that other people will get the payoff of that show. People are going to say, ‘Where has this been? What a genius!’ And that’s going to happen. It’s going to be revived and it will be successful.”