Killing American presidents - or attempting to - might seem unlikely subject matter for a musical. But that didn't stop the ever-adventurous composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He and book writer John Weidman (who also scripted Sondheim's Pacific Overtures and Road Show) created the 1990 musical Assassins.
The show is having its Canberra premiere on September 7. It's produced by Everyman Theatre and directed by Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts, whose previous directorial credits include Heathers: the Musical for Dramatic Productions.
The show features the four men who killed presidents - John Wilkes Booth (who shot Abraham Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (James Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley) and Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy). It also features would-be assassins including John Hinckley, who shot but did not kill Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed.
Everyman's West says the show has been on the company's wish list for a while. He says he's loved Assassins since he played Oswald in a 2000 Perth production.
The rights to another musical, Falsettos, were unavailable, West says, so Assassins became the choice.
"I rang [music director] Xander Uniknowski and said, 'Let's go for this.'"
West says Uniknowski had never heard the music before.
"He rang back three hours later and said, 'I love it, let's do it.'"
Because the assassins lived at different times, the songs are written in various styles of American popular music, from a Stephen Foster-style banjo song to vaudeville-style music to a 1970s love ballad.
In this production, West is playing Booth, wearing the same wig he wore in 42nd Street and Las Cage Aux Folles.
He says the assassins in the show are "the disenfranchised, the forgotten ones".
They sing "Everybody's got the right to be happy" - and their way of achieving their dreams is to kill a president.
The show is narrated by a guitar-playing character called the Balladeer, holding things together as the characters present their individual perspectives on what they did and why. It might be seeking fame, done out of patriotism or frustration at not getting an ambassadorship, obeying a message from God - and the audience is asked to understand, if not sympathise with, them.
Their stories are also a reminder that, as one lyric in The Gun Song says, "all you have to do/Is move your little finger/Move your little finger and - /You can change the world".
Booth was not nearly as disadvantaged as most of the others - he was a successful actor who came from a renowned theatrical family - but West says the pro-slavery Southern sympathiser saw his country heading in a direction he didn't like and decided to do something about it.
In 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end - only one Southern army was still fighting after General Robert E. Lee surrendered - Booth entered an assassination conspiracy: he would shoot Lincoln, while others would murder vice-president Andrew Johnson and secretary of state William H. Seward.
Lewis Powell wounded but did not kill Seward and George Atzerodt got drunk and did not attempt to kill Johnson. But Booth shot and killed Lincoln at Ford's Theatre and escaped: he was shot by a policeman 12 days later.
"The assassination set the country back 20 years," West says, adding the wounds it caused were deep.
West invited Pegg and Roberts to direct Assassins.
Roberts, who left California for Australia when she was 21, calls Assassins "a fluid, expressionist piece".
Given the grimness of the subject matter she and Pegg decided to play up the show's playful and comedic aspects whenever possible.
The setting is a carnival shooting gallery and all the actors are on stage the whole time. There's no chorus: the cast members play all the minor roles as well as their own.
Roberts says, "I think it's very funny but it's awfully dark humour ... [we] felt the show needed to be funny. You have to be able to relate to it."
Because of the strict regulations about guns they decided to eschew any pretence of realism and use obviously toy guns, "making light of something that's serious".
Pegg agrees that the toy guns help to lighten the mood.
He had heard of Assassins but had never seen it or heard a cast recording of the show before taking it on with Roberts but soon warmed to its ideas and music.
He says that as well as the humour, he and Roberts wanted to "find the sympathy" in the characters.
Whatever ghastly and grotesque deeds they did in real life, in the show these characters, united by an unusual common cause, support each other and show each other care and affection, he says.
The things they sing and say might sound unhinged, but they don't believe they're crazy.
"They're all trying to find their truth."
There were several other attempts on presidents' lives - not all of them dealt with in the show - and since Assassins was first produced there have been other would-be killers, including Vladimir Arutyunian, who threw a hand grenade at George W. Bush (it landed 18 metres from the podium on which the then-president was and did not detonate) and Francisco Martin Duran who tried to shoot Bill Clinton.
Assassins, it seems, is still all too relevant.
Assassins. Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. Directed by Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts. Musical direction by Xander Unikowski. Not suitable for children. Everyman Productions. Belconnen Theatre. September 7 to 21. canberraticketing.com.au.