Ethan Slater Blocked Stephen Sondheim From Sitting Down in ASSASSINS Rehearsals
Ethan Slater is the awkward kid inside all of us. Noticing a musical theatre giant in the Assassins rehearsal room, he quietly tip-toed away, thinking he was safe. Instead, Stephen Sondheim continued to walk closer and closer to him. Like a scene in a teen comedy, Slater was practically bending over backwards to stay out of the way—except there was one problem: he was standing over Sondheim’s seat. That’s a heck of a way to meet your icon.
That story, along with many others, was shared with Theatrely in a sit-down interview ahead of the Assassins benefit concert May 9 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway. The entire cast of the Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway revival will return for the one-night-only event to benefit CSC.
Below, learn more about that infamous meeting with Sondheim, how Ethan prepared for his duo role as the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, and what the likelihood of Assassins coming to Broadway is. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I'm pretty sure Assassins was my favorite theatre experience last year. What was that like for you to be a part of that ensemble?
Ethan: Yeah, I mean, you were just talking about seeing everyone from the second row: that's kind of how I felt every night. I got to be on stage for the whole show because I was playing guitar. During scenes, for example, between Tavi [Gevinson] and Judy [Kuhn], I was just sitting there three feet away from them, watching these two unbelievable actors work. Seeing how it changed and grew every night, and yet stayed really true to the thing that we had built in the rehearsal room, it was truly an experience that I'll never forget. Steve Pasquale, Will Swenson, Adam Chandler-Berat, and Eddie Cooper, you go down the list and just literally every single person is the best at what they do. So, it was really special and outrageously intimidating. On day one of rehearsal, actually, in March of 2020, we were in rehearsal and I walked in and the only person I knew was my good friend Wes Taylor, which was really great. And then I sat down at my assigned seat where my script was and I was between Judy and Steve, and I was like, “Ah!” [laughs] And then, of course, you know, Steve Sondheim walked into the room, and I was like, “I just can't really handle this at the moment.”
What was that like meeting him?
Ethan: So I had never met him before. And obviously, like anyone who even casually likes musical theatre, I’ve been deeply obsessed with him my whole life, and I’ve watched as many interviews and things as I could. So, it was a bit of an overwhelming experience and feels like a very classic Ethan story. I was standing where I thought I was out of the way, and I saw him walk into the room, and I started backing away, trying to not be in his way. And he keeps walking closer and closer to me and he’s talking to people; he is so friendly, talking with all these people that he knows so well. Then, he stops and stands right in front of me. And I'm just sort of standing there—he's talking to [director] John Doyle, and he turns and he introduces himself to me. I'm like, “Oh, my God, like, oh, this is great! He came over to me!” And then I look down and I see that I am standing directly over his seat. And he was like, “Yeah, I would love to sit down if you wouldn't mind moving over.” I had thought I was being so cool and so smooth, but I was actually just blocking him from where he needed to sit down. [Laughs]
That is the great way to position oneself to meet him. It’s sure-fire…
Ethan: Right? If it's intentional, it's so smart!
So, now you're doing a concert of the show. How are you feeling about it?
Ethan: We had rehearsed for two weeks and then we came back two years later, right? And so there was that kind of, “Oh, we have to relearn this whole thing.” Now, we’ve run it, we did a 13-week run; it went great and it felt wonderful. We’ve only been away for a couple of months, and I’m already like, “Oh, I've got to relearn it again?,” but I think that kind of speaks to the vibrancy of the show; it's not something that can be stale. Especially with John Doyle's staging—we're not doing that, we're doing a concert version of it—but the way I’m accompanying myself with this amazing band of people, you know, Brad Giovanine, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, and Katrina Yaukey, like this group of people that are the best actors and musicians that you can imagine. So we’ve got to learn and work on the score again, and then also work on the acting of it, so it feels a little daunting, but I’m just so thrilled. To be able to do it on the stage of the Sondheim Theatre in a Broadway-sized house, I think it's going to fill the space beautifully.
You mention this “vibrancy,” can you tell me more about what you mean?
I remember… sometime early on [in rehearsals pre-pandemic], just sitting there watching Brandon Uranowitz as Czolgosz doing scene work with Bianca Horn playing Emma Goldman, and I remember thinking, “I know this show. I've listened to the soundtrack a million times…and this role has never stuck out to me as being so beautiful and so wonderful.” And watching him do it the first time through, I was so deeply moved. I was like, “this is THE role in this show. This is the best role.” And then, of course, each person gets up and does their thing and I'm like, “THIS is the role,” you know? But there was something about it… I knew Brandon's work, I knew how amazing he was, but to see somebody in a rehearsal room elevate material from where you'd seen it before is so cool and so special and such a learning experience for me. What was amazing about it was not only did he come to day one with something so special, but it just kept growing. And every night during that scene, I was sitting like in the upstage right corner, looking down. And at different moments, I had this beautiful view of Bianca, and then I had this beautiful view of Brandon and just the truth that he brought to the role. Anyway, that’s me rambling about how much I'm obsessed with Brandon, but I'm also just excited to get back on stage and see those moments again and watch how it's grown, because I'm sure it's going to be unique and special.
So Ethan, what can audiences expect from the concert?
Ethan: You know, I'm not 100% sure if I'm going to be totally honest. I think we're going to be in suggestions of the costumes. Everybody was so deeply invested and we love the show and we love this production of it. I think everybody is really committed to it. And for that reason, even though I think it's theoretically a music-stands-kind-of situation, it's going to be very involved. I think it's going to feel fully realized because we have spent months, and years at this point, getting into these characters. I think one of the things that is so great about John as a director is his ability to give the actors the license to feel ownership over their roles and really let the performances shine. So, I think that that's what you're going to get from this. It's going to be distilled because it's got that sort of concert set-up, but I think the performances are really going to be given the chance to breathe and be vibrant.
You mentioned that everyone’s “really committed to” this show. Is that a little teaser that we might see this on Broadway?
Ethan: I know nothing. I would love to do it on Broadway! It would be wonderful for this one-night-only to become something that more people could experience and see. That would be wonderful, but unfortunately, that’s not me winking and saying, “I know something you don't know.”
I love it, too! When did you first experience Assassins?
Ethan: I had listened to the cast album sometime in high school during my years of poring through things. I don't think that I would have said back then that Assassins is my favorite Sondheim piece. That wasn't really where I was at because I hadn't seen it. I actually didn't see it on stage until I went to Vassar College and saw a student production of it. I remember thinking, “This is so weird. I love it.” This script by John Weidman? Like, come on, Weidman! This is really different and I remember being blown away by it. But, again, I didn't see it and immediately know it, you know? I think sometimes it takes working on a show to really get into its bones. When I heard about the show coming to New York and Doyle directing it, I remember thinking, “This feels really perfect.” There’s something about The Balladeer actually playing guitar, getting to bring that Americana music and having it feel like it’s made by the people on stage. I was like, “This is going to be a really cool way to live it.” Greg Jarrett's orchestrations did that and then some.
I love that you're playing an instrument onstage. I listen to the cast album all the time and I think your voice particularly is just really well-suited for the role. I find The Balladeer so interesting because he’s sort-of omniscient, aware of everything that’s going on, and then at the end you transform into Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s something that wasn't originally in the script, but then it happened in the Broadway revival, and I feel it's sort of become part of the canon. What is that like for you as a performer?
Ethan: You know, it's interesting that you say that because John [Doyle] was not going to do the double-casting thing. I was initially just auditioning for the Balladeer, but I wanted to do it for both. We talked a little bit about what that would mean, because if it's not written in, then why do it other than to give somebody a nice scene to do? But, there’s something in the discussions that John and I had, that the whole cast all had together, about not just the way that The Balladeer is seeing the story, but the way that the story is changing him. It’s written that they sort of engulf him during “Another National Anthem” and he gets swallowed up by these people. To me, that’s the story of Lee Harvey Oswald. This is somebody who was really disenfranchised and had a really tough childhood and was susceptible to the idea that violence is the strongest voice that somebody has…and I think that's what's happening in this journey.
I always find it so interesting when performers play two characters on stage, especially ones that morph into another (versus just playing two separate people).
Ethan: There’s this inner journey I'm having that I think reads to some extent, but mainly is for me. There’s all these things that you have as an actor when you're on stage, it's like, okay, “This is my journey. It's my secret,” but to me, it's the same thing: The Balladeer is Lee Harvey Oswald and Lee Harvey Oswald is The Balladeer. It’s the story of disillusionment and being manipulated and convinced to do something. So, it felt really seamless at the end of the day. The process of putting the show together was a lot of, “Okay, so what is this scene doing for me that the audience is never seeing?” I’m on stage watching the whole time, but what am I grabbing from Sarah Jane Moore? What is she saying that's really connecting with [my character] and breaking a different part of me down. What is the thing about Guiteau? There’s a real sadness in his mania, I think, that connects with Oswald and makes him feel alone. And he wants to have the grandiosity that Guiteau wants to have. There’s real beauty in the structure of what John Weidman has written here. It’s not structured in this traditional plot, with rising action, but what he's doing, from my point of view, is laying out thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, broken up in these beautiful ways that turn into Oswald's point of view. So, to me it felt really threaded-through and important and wonderful; it was something that I was really proud of.