Farmer's Branch — If musicals about man-eating plants and vengeful barbers can make it on The Great White Way, why not a tune-filled show about…presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald?
It might seem a hard sell, particularly in Dallas-Fort Worth, where JFK’s assassination is still a painful memory for many. But New York-based actors Tony LePage and Josh Sassanella (they co-wrote the script, and composer Sassanella wrote the songs) have plenty to say about the whys and wherefores of their musical Oswald, which will have a workshop at The Firehouse Theatre from May 3 through May 5.
The company calls Oswald a “developmental musical.” It’s grown and changed over the past few years (a concert version was performed in Manhattan in 2016), but Ally Beans of Eisenberg/Beans Casting, one of the show’s lead producers (with Enrique Brown of Brown Productions), says this is “the first time an audience will get to experience the complete show beginning to end” with all the songs and dialogue, plus a full cast and band.
Writer LePage is a Canadian-born actor and singer whose Broadway credits include Rock of Ages and the current long-running hit Come From Away. In the Firehouse production, LePage himself is playing one of the two “versions” of Lee Harvey Oswald audiences will see onstage.
Songwriter/composer Sassanella also played Broadway in Rock of Ages (that’s where he met LePage) and in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. His first musical Forever Young is about growing up, as he did, in small-town Indiana.
Beans grew up in the suburbs north of Dallas. A longtime supporter of Firehouse Theatre, she’s taken LePage and Sassanella on a kind of listening/learning tour of JFK and Oswald sites in the area, and they’ve had a chance to talk with people who were in Dallas-Fort Worth on November 22, 1963.
Theater Jones exchanged emails with the trio in the days before Oswald’s first performance.
TheaterJones: I’m fascinated to know when and why the idea of a musical about Lee Harvey Oswald started. Tony, I believe it began with you. What were you thinking…and what was your “pitch” to Josh to persuade him to come in on it?
Tony LePage: To be honest it was just a concept until I brought it to Josh.
The two of us were in the cast of Rock of Ages on Broadway. We were each working on our own writing projects and Josh turned to me and said “hey, you write musicals, and I write musicals... maybe we should write one together?” And I said “sure, what kind of stuff do you like?” He said “I like historical things.” So I proceeded to tell him I came up with an idea about eight years ago. I was re-watching the Oliver Stone film JFK and had a thought....When Lee Harvey Oswald was killed, the truth died with him. The world became divided about whether he did it or not, and he essentially became two people: “The Lone Gunman” or “the Patsy.” And so, the idea of having two people play him simultaneously was born. The next day he had the first song written and our collaboration began! Without Josh, this would likely still just be an idea bouncing around in my head.
Josh, what grabbed you about this project at the start—or scared you?
Josh: I wasn't scared as much as I was intrigued. My favorite stories are ones that tell history in a way no one else has before. The concept of two men playing one person simultaneously was enough to grab me. Only after we had dug in on the writing did the weight of the subject matter begin to show itself.
What audiences will see at The Firehouse Theatre is a musical that is still “becoming”—with an 11-person cast and a band, but not the finished product, right?
Josh: I'd describe it as a concert presentation. It will be somewhere between a reading and a production. Our cast is going to be fantastic and bring a lot to the table, so we're excited about what we're going to get do here in Dallas.
Tony: This is very much a developmental staged reading. It will give the audience a sense of the various stages that a musical goes through on its way to (fingers crossed) Broadway.
There are 27 songs in the show, which sounds like a lot!
Josh: After our work session in New York in January we've actually cut a few songs and added a few new ones. [The show runs about 100 minutes.] We're at just 23 songs now. But that's how musicals go. A lot of great music gets left on the cutting-room floor. That being said, this piece is very cinematic in nature, so much of the show is underscored. It's impossible to tell this kind of thriller without melodic support. I've really had a lot of fun pulling the story and emotional weight that comes with it along with the kind of music that you would expect to support a fully fledged Hollywood blockbuster.
How tricky is it to pack accurate historical facts into a show that’s more song than dialogue?
Josh: Our show moves very quickly, and Tony has a way of putting great dialogue into a show in a way that makes for some very efficient storytelling. While the show isn't sung through we really stick to a Hollywood model, in the way that one moment of the show can tell a lot of story. As far as historical facts, we've had to be very careful about this show turning into a book report. We let the narrative play out the way it does, but have been very careful to focus on what really matters; the people who where there and how Lee Harvey Oswald's actions affected them.
You’ve mentioned that the Beatles were a big influence on the show’s music; can you talk about the why and how of that?
Josh: The simple answer is...it was the Sixties. And the youth of that time were inundated with the exciting new music coming from the UK. The Beatles became the obvious way of thrusting the story into the time period. From there I looked at the part of the world the story was happening in (Texas, Cuba, New Orleans, Mexico) and let that lead me as well: there is a lot of jazz and country in the show too.
In the musical, one actor plays “Lee” and another plays “Oswald.” What’s the distinction between them?
Tony: One is named Oswald “the Lone Gunman”—guilty of the assassination, driven mad by his unrelenting need to be remembered. The other is named Lee “the Patsy,” not guilty, the victim of a horrible conspiracy. They are played simultaneously by two different actors. They are the same person, but two versions of the life he lead. It is also meant to represent the inherent duality in all of us, that no matter what your opinion of him may be, he was also a son, a brother, a father, a husband, maybe a killer, maybe a victim. He could be anyone.
Stephen Sondheim told The New York Times in 2013—when his musical Assassins had a revival—that among his lineup of presidential assassins and would-be assassins (from John Wilkes Booth onward) “some were less than crazy, and some were more than crazy.” Did either/both of you come to any conclusions about Lee Harvey Oswald?
Josh: We get this question more than any other. In truth, I started off thinking he did it. After living with the conspiracy theories I began to change my tune. Now however, I've returned to my original thought. But! I'm always willing to be swayed.
Tony: It’s a tough one because we don’t know the truth. We never will. So depending upon which side you believe the “more or less than crazy” kind of splits there.
The show is seen, to a large extent, from Marina Oswald’s perspective. She remarried and still lives in the area, but leads an ultra-private life—did you even try to contact her?
Josh: We haven't reached out because she is a private woman, and in our dramatic retelling it ultimately served us better not to. I'm sure Tony will say the same, but Marina's story ultimately represents a bigger story for us. Lee Harvey Oswald's narrative really became a device for us to discuss what it means to survive and live on past tragedy and heartbreak. We respect what she's had to carry all of these years. This story isn't just about her, it's about surviving.
Tony: We didn’t reach out because she has been quite clear about not wanting to be bogged down by all this anymore. Which is completely understandable considering what she went through. It was very important for us to have a story told by her. I have grown very fond of her through telling her story, albeit a dramatic retelling. I think she has an indomitable spirit and is an inspiration to anyone who has ever had to deal with loss, regret and uncertainty. Hers is a story of overcoming that and moving on. She truly is the Oswald in the title.
Ally, you grew up in the Dallas area. How important to the show has it been to have some local input, a feel for what the JFK assassination still means to people here in D-FW?
Ally: It's the whole reason we are starting this journey in Dallas, truthfully. When I came onto the project my first order of business was telling Josh and Tony we had to go to Dallas simply to start talking to people. It's vital to the storytelling that we have the community involved….I also feel it's our responsibility to get input from the residents and earn their trust and respect with this very delicate piece of history.
Have you met people here for whom this is still living memory, and what have you heard/learned from them?
Ally: Yes! I don't want to share anything without permission, but there have been people coming forward from the beginning from Firehouse's patron base, each with a fascinating point of view. My grandparents were downtown that day to see the President and were holding my aunt, who was about six months old at the time, standing around the corner from the grassy knoll. They were two of the first people Tony got to speak to when we first came to Dallas for research.
Josh: We have. And while I'm sure we'll meet a lot more, we are very excited to get their input. This story is Dallas's story and we know that the scars are there. We hope that we can bring some solace to the community and offer a little catharsis to a group who has carried this with them for years. We'll find out. If not, back to the drawing board.
Tony: I went to LHO’s boarding house and had the tour with a lovely woman who runs it. She was a child when it happened, but she knew him and it’s a great tour. One of my first orders of business when I get to Dallas this time will be to talk to as many locals as I can and hear their stories. I’d say the biggest thing I learned is that this story is still very much alive, very personal to anyone it touched, and needs to be told.
So I know the show is supposed to entertain and inform—but do you feel an extra layer of…something? Responsibility, or if that’s not the right word…?
Ally: I think responsibility is a great word, actually. It's similar to how I feel about [the Broadway musical] Come from Away, which Tony is in. When you choose a piece of history that is still tender, even after decades, there is a responsibility to honor it and also be respectful of all parties involved regardless of the message you're trying to send. This is a dramatic interpretation, sure, but these characters were real people with children and families.
What’s upcoming for you two in New York? Josh, I understand you’re still touring your first musical—and is that your brother I see in the pictures?
Josh: Yes, my brother, my best friend and I tour a show called Forever Young. We travel around the country, perform on cruise lines, and help high school music departments raise money for their programs. That project has been off and running for some time now. My real passion is Oswald and writing original music theater. Tony and my next show is called Gabardyne, and while we’re excited about developing that, our eyes are on Oswald for now.
Tony: I am currently in the Broadway cast of Come from Away and I love it!!
Any other final thoughts—things you’d like your audience to know?
Ally: We're so happy to be here, and I hope you give this show a chance.
The cast for Oswald includes three Equity actors from New York: Tina Stafford, who will play “Marina Oswald [Porter],” with Broadway veterans Justin Mortelliti playing “Lee” and LePage playing “Oswald.” Local actors include: Katie Moyes Williams as Marina’s younger self; female ensemble members Devin Berg, Allison Bret, Laura Lites, Kimberly Pine, Ashley Ricci; and male ensemble members Joseph Burnam, Alex Heika, Sadat Hossain, Brett Ricci, Dan Servetnick, and Brandon Whitlock. The New York-based production team includes director Randi Kleiner and music director Jane Cardona. The show runs May 3-5, with Friday/Saturday evening performances at 7:30 and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2:30.