Dean Bryant has long been a fan of the legendary Stephen Sondheim. In fact, the very first piece of theatre he directed was Sondheim.
“When I was 17, I formed a theatre company when I was at Melbourne Uni studying law, so that I could direct his Company,” Bryant tells Theatre People. “I just loved that show so much I wanted to see it, and this seemed like a good way.”
It was that experience, Bryant says, that set him on the path to a career in directing.
“I went to WAAPA the next year to study directing and acting,” he says.
In 2012, Bryant was associate director on the Geoffrey Rush-led production of A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, which played a season at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. That experience gave Bryant the opportunity to even chat to Sondheim when he came out to Australia for the production.
“He is the writer I most admire, probably in any field,” Bryant says. “I knew the brilliant book, Sondheim and Co, word for word. I still can’t believe that Broadway got Company one year, Follies the next, then A Little Night Music the year after that. What an incredible time!”
So, is there anything Bryant enjoys about directing a Sondheim piece that is, perhaps, unique to his work?
“The intelligence that has been poured into it from every creative working on it,” he says. “Sondheim himself, first and foremost, but also the book writers, directors, producers, choreographers and designers he was involved with. They all came together to make this canon of exciting pieces of musical theatre that took all the elements that people loved about the form, and then twisted, reinvented and reimagined. As a result, you’re coming to a piece that has already been so finessed and thought about, that offers so many thrills, such meaty material. And then the songs are astonishing – as songs, their contexts, the tunes, the ideas.”
Bryant is now directing Sondheim’s multi-Tony Award-winning musical, Assassins, which commences a limited season at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre next Friday 15 September. The show features a remarkable cast, including David Campbell, Hannah Fredericksen, Bobby Fox and Laura Bunting, and is the first Sondheim musical to be performed at the Hayes.
Assassins is set in a fairground shooting gallery, where each member of a group of misfits has a problem and has discovered that the answer to that problem is to shoot the President of the United States. The show recalls the manner in which each individual, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, has committed – or attempted to commit – their crime.
Bryant describes Assassins as “wild and black and completely unexpected.”
“There’s never been a show like it before or after,” he says.
“It creates a world never seen before, a kind of limbo amusement park where these murderous humans, people who tried to kill presidents, can bump up against each other and the audience, exploring desire, love, ambition, ego and history. It’s like a fun park ride in itself, you never know what is coming next. And it’s funny! And the parts are great for the actors, the range they get to play across this piece. And there’s a hundred years of popular American music covered. It really looks inside the human psyche, the rage we feel when we know we’re meant to be able to achieve these great things and just aren’t.”
It was in 1990 that Assassins had its very first audience Off-Broadway. So, over a quarter of a century later, how is Bryant working to ensure his new production is fresh and relevant to a 2017 audience?
“It’s an historical piece, i.e., it’s about events that have already occurred, so it doesn’t age in that sense. And I approach any piece as if it were written now, a new script that I’ve just been handed where I have to deliver the writer’s intentions in the space we’re in, with the actors we’ve cast.
“But what I think is most exciting and scary about the piece now is what it feels like to have a President in the US who is such a horror show – so rude and careless and cheerfully inhumane – I feel angry about it, and that’s a frame through which you see how these people saw their president at the time.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Bryant was at the Hayes directing Little Shop of Horrors, which is arguably one of the most critically-acclaimed productions of a musical in Australia in recent years. Now, returning to the directorial chair at the Hayes, does he feel any pressure to meet – or even exceed – the standard he set on that production?
“There was so much that was risky about our take on Little Shop, and it was wonderful to have all those choices devoured by the audience,” he says. “But we’re approaching Assassins the same way – what is vital and exciting about this story, these characters, and what’s the most interesting way to tell this at the Hayes?
“The magic of the Hayes is the shape of the space matched with that audience, so it’s crucial to build around that idea. We achieved this on Sweet Charity and on Little Shop, and I’m really excited with what our designer Alicia [Clements] has imagined into being. It’s a really adventurous design for the space, given the time and budget constraints, but one that is so potentially mind-blowing. There’s a couple of key moments that are thrilling and unexpected, but chiefly, we are doing a brilliant piece of writing as clearly and viscerally as possible.”
And is there a message Bryant hopes audiences will take away from Assassins?
“That’s not how I see my job”, he says. “I want to engage and draw them into a story and a world, one where they see things they’ve never seen before – images, moments, feelings – but I hope the work is open enough that they find their own message in it.”
ASSASSINS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point)
Season: From September 15
Times: Mon 6:30pm, Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Wed & Sat 2pm
Run Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes (no interval)
Patrons’ Advice: Recommended for audience members 15 years and older
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337