Curtain Call: Composer Stephen Sondheim attends Warner Theatre’s production of ‘Assassins’

Even if world renowned Stephen Sondheim were not in the audience, and he really was, the one night only Warner Theatre production of the “Assassins” was so brilliantly produced at the Pleasant Valley Drive-in located in Barkhamsted, that it will never be forgotten by those who were in attendance.

When producing artistic director Sharon W. Houk got a call from Sondheim’s office that composer would attend the performance of “Assassins,” she was sworn to secrecy. Directors Katherine Ray and music director Dan Koch were told his arrival was a possibility. Ray said that when she saw his car pull up right behind Koch, she told him “The Eagle has landed.” Koch asked Ray where he was. She responded with “He’s right behind you looking over your shoulder.”

Koch laughed as he voiced “No additional stress of course.” There was so much about this production that would have rattled the nerves of the most professional creative teams, but no one in this cast or in the designated cars knew that the great Sondheim was in their midst. After the show, the cast was informed of his presence. One member said incredulously, “I just sang Sondheim for Sondheim!”

Happily, the show was brilliantly performed. Here’s how it worked: About 88 cars, each filled with four and five passengers, represented about 250 people in the audience. All the vehicles were safely distanced apart. The actors who were in period appropriate vehicles were also safely distanced from each other. The split-screen technique, which was projected on the drive-in’s bigger than life screen allowed everyone in every car to see every actor up close. The assigned car radio station provided splendid clarity. The actors performed in front of the screen with cameras assigned to them. Therefore, audience members could watch actors live or on the big screen.

Cars beeped and flashed their lights when the show began and the sound of all the cars honking their pleasure at the end of the evening will be remembered longer than a standing ovation. It’s almost too difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that this was a community theater event and that volunteers made this show possible.

Houk said that it all came together with only one technical rehearsal the night before the show. That would seem almost impossible to accomplish, since the production was so polished. Most of the cast had performed in a previous production of this show at the Warner’s in-house Torrington production. This is not an easy show. All actors have to be highly skilled singers and accomplished actors.

This clever musical focuses on the people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate the presidents of the United States. While it goes behind the scenes and into the minds of the assassins, it is easy to see how disenfranchised these would-be murderers and killers were. The assassins span different historical periods, and rather than the American Dream represent the American Nightmare.

Joanne Greco Rochman was a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: