DALLAS — In 1964, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, noted journalist Harrison Salisbury issued a proclamation: “The year 2000 will see men still arguing about the president’s death.” His timing was off, of course.
It’s 2019, and men and women alike are still arguing about it. Or, they’re crafting a potential Broadway musical that offers two characters named Lee Harvey Oswald — one who acted alone, as the Warren Commission said he did, or one who served as the point man in a dark conspiracy. As defined by the script, they are: The Lone Gunman and The Patsy.
Such is the idea behind Oswald, a new musical, whose 27-song score drew what casting director and producer Ally Beans calls an enthusiastic response from a sold-out crowd Aug. 19 at The Green Room 42 in New York City. Producers unveiled the score and commissioned Broadway vocalists to sing it in hopes of luring potential investors.
It’s not yet Broadway, but it’s the next step in a pursuit that began at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch, which hosted a staged reading of the musical in May.
Despite being billed as less than a full production, its creators sold tickets, and all four performances sold out. Those who saw the work ranged mostly in age from boomer to elderly and ate it up, kissing it with a standing ovation each time it ended.
In an interview before its arrival at the Firehouse in May, Beans called the project “the story of Lee Harvey Oswald, but two actors portray him. We have the man who did it and the man who did not, which sort of buys into the unknown, some of the conspiracy theories, some of the gray areas of the story as we know it.”
Beans says the show will allow us “to see some of the events leading up to the assassination, in real time, with two different outcomes.”
The story is told through the eyes of Marina Oswald, the widow of the man believed to be the assassin of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“What does it mean to live with the name Oswald is a strong theme in the show,” Beans says.
Those who conceived it are richly talented, bringing with them from New York to Texas showy Broadway credentials. The songs were moving,
And the concept alone is so bold and daring, its creators deserve hosannas for having the chutzpah to even try it.
And yet, in the same way that its volatile subject matter provokes a minefield of questions, so too does Oswald. Salisbury had no idea how right he was.
The web of questions surrounding what really happened in Dealey Plaza no doubt will continue its spidery evolution. Questions will shadow the crime itself as well as who spins the story, as page after cobwebbed page is turned by the hand of history.
The media were invited to the Farmers Branch performances, and, yes, we too have questions. So, we decided to consult a pair of foremost experts to hear what they have to say.
We found it noteworthy that those staging the show, from tenors to sopranos to producers, fit the description of millennial (those born between 1981 and 1996, or 23 to 38 in age). Except for one character — Marina, the widow of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who, like him, appears as two characters, one young, the other as an older woman. We should add that not once is she portrayed unfavorably.
If anything, hers is an empathetic portrait. (We reached out to the woman herself, Marina Oswald Porter, who lives in Rockwall, and who is now 78, but did not hear back.)
As someone who has written scores of Kennedy assassination stories — my interest began as a sixth-grade student in Dallas on the day he died — I have learned much of what I know by turning to people whose work I respect, who have dealt with Dallas’ darkest day as artfully as anyone I know.
I made my first call to Gerald Posner, who finished as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for having written what some regard as the definitive book on the subject, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Upon its release in 1993, The New York Times called it “by far the most lucid and compelling account … of what probably did happen in Dallas — and what almost certainly did not.”
I began on a light note, telling Posner that Oswald features a pair of Oswalds, prompting him to say: “Please don’t tell me they sing a duet.”
They do not. They sing multiple duets, to which he reacted with a groan and a laugh: “Oh, no!”
Why a musical?
Posner has long said that he began his quest suspecting there was a conspiracy that culminated in a presidential murder on Elm Street in Dallas. But voluminous reporting put him on a different course, a fate that also befell Dale Myers, who wrote the definitive book on Oswald’s murder of Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit, titled With Malice.
What we wanted to know was this: Why attempt such a musical? Why take a page of history so bedeviled with a lack of consensus and risk it, not as a straight play, but as a musical, in the highly competitive, cutthroat environment known as Broadway in the 21st century? The answer might best be described in the title of a book published in 1999: Everyone is looking for “the new, new thing.” And the new, new thing in this case has everything to do with the Broadway megahit, Hamilton.
In fact, those who created Oswald acknowledged in a “talkback” after a matinee that today’s Broadway wunderkinds share the same crowded dream: They all want to score the next Hamilton. So, why not turn to what worked before? And that, of course, means history.
Come From Away, a Tony Award-winning musical about air travelers stranded in Newfoundland in the wake of 9/11, is, like Hamilton, historically based.
But what Hamilton and Come From Away share in common is the (rare for 2019) phenomenon of bringing people together. In other words, they defy the odds, at a time when unity feels, well, hopeless.
It’s intriguing that one of the folks putting this show together, Broadway star Tony LePage, is a cast member in Come From Away. In Oswald, LePage plays The Lone Gunman. LePage and Josh Sassanella (whose credits include Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Rock of Ages) co-wrote the script, and Sassanella wrote the lyrics and music, which stands out as one of the show’s most alluring elements.
Two Oswalds or not, Posner says millennials cannot be held to the same standard as boomers when it comes to the subject of JFK. It would be unfair, he says, comparing it to boomers not being the most salient
experts on, say, World War I.
Despite the age of those putting on the show, he isn’t the least bit surprised that conspiracy would be their divining rod, their road map.
The assassination, he says, “has devolved over the years into this board game of Who Killed Kennedy?”
Dallas journalist Hugh Aynesworth, who witnessed the assassination itself, and who authored the 2013 book, November 22, 1963: Witness to History, believes Oswald acted alone. He called the approach the producers took “so typical. Conspiracy is where the money is.”
So, when Oswald places in one scene four men sitting at a table — Jack Ruby, Oswald, New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello and suspected conspirator David Ferrie — “you don’t really have to worry about the facts,” Posner says, “because it’s entertainment. It truly is anything goes.”
Ah, yes. Anything goes. Ruby’s Carousel Club, which was, in fact, a seedy strip joint on Commerce Street, doubles in Oswald as a cabaret where fully clothed women sing show tunes. Sorry, folks, never happened.
It is, however, one more example of what makes the assassination vulnerable to creative license, whereas other historical crimes are immune.
“You don’t really have to worry about the facts, because that’s how we’ve treated the case,” Posner says.
“And it’s really unfortunate. There is, and I’m going to sound like an old dinosaur with this, a certain lack of respect associated with the assassination that would not be the case with other events.
“For instance, you could not have a Broadway musical about slavery in which you make light of something, or the Boston Strangler or Sandy Hook or 9/11. Those are incidents of terrible tragedy for which people have enough respect not to reduce them to entertainment. But with the Kennedy assassination, there won’t be an eyelid raised, nor will anyone really be offended, because it’s part of the natural slide that comes with this event, which makes it like a board game.”
The view that Oswald acted alone, for which Posner makes a starkly compelling case in Case Closed, one he illuminates with psychiatric-like insight, “feels,” he says, “quite antiquated at this point.”
In the end, it may not matter with Oswald, which Posner contends faces only one true hurdle: Is it entertaining enough to be a hit? He cites, for example, Mel Brooks’ movie The Producers and its signature song, Springtime for Hitler.
“One was led to think, ‘Oh, my God, it’s too soon,’ but it was brilliant and the audience loved it,” Posner says. “Same thing with Jesus Christ Superstar. Would fundamentalist Christians get crazy? But it, too, was a big hit.”
The great Stephen Sondheim has already dealt with the killing of JFK in Assassins, which failed to excite critics or the box office. And why? In Posner’s words, “not entertaining enough.”
Errors and omissions
And yet, there remains the big A — accuracy.
The most egregious depiction in Oswald is that of Ruth Paine, the Irving woman who offered refuge to a pregnant Marina Oswald and her 1-year-old daughter, June Lee, and later her newborn baby, Rachel, when Marina and Lee were barely eluding homelessness in the fall of 1963. He was living in an Oak Cliff rooming house (for $8 a week) and spent weekends in Paine’s home, where he kept the murder weapon stored in her garage — unbeknown to his host.
In Oswald, Paine is trotted out as a blond, apple-pie-baking Southern belle with a thick Texas accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Paine was so much more compelling — a thin Quaker, an individualist with a big heart, who lived her life as far from a silly Texas stereotype as anyone could have.
She looms as such a fascinating character in the history of the crime that author Thomas Mallon chose to make her the focus of his 2002 book, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, which was serialized in The New Yorker.
Hearing the description of Paine in the show, Mallon says, “I’m aghast at the absurdity — and wondering what the point of it was.”
It didn’t stop there. Paine is depicted as a three-time winner of the apple pie-baking contest at the State Fair of Texas. Even worse, those who wrote the script have her living not in Irving, but in Fort Worth, and next door to Oswald’s brother, Robert. Again, why?
“It’s not the first time we’ve heard that,” Beans says of the criticism. “Clearly, there’s a major artistic liberty taken in the device of the two Oswalds and whatnot. I think the choice to characterize Ruth a little bit differently was intentional, and also the authors are aware of it. It’s not historically accurate.”
Mrs. Paine’s Garage is nonfiction, but Mallon has long specialized in historical fiction, such as Landfall, his most recent novel, about the second term of President George W. Bush.
“I do deviate from reality in the novels I write, but if I have one rule, it’s don’t fight the facts unless there’s a really important reason to do so,” he says. “Usually, the facts provide you a more interesting story than something you’re going to invent on your own. Why wouldn’t you just write her out of the whole thing and concentrate on other aspects of it? Again, what is the point?”
Until her recent retirement, Shirley Smith served as curator of the Ruth Paine House, which the city of Irving purchased in 2009 and opened as a museum in 2013. Smith made a point of going to the show in Farmers Branch, where she was stunned at how Oswald depicted Paine.
“I just think it was totally inappropriate and not at all factual,” Smith says.
“There are so many resources where you could get actual facts and knowledge of that relationship. They totally blew that.”
Even so, the mostly boomer-to-elderly crowd responded with warmth and affection during the post-show discussion in Farmers Branch, though one older man did ask the producers quite pointedly about omitting from the script Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit. Oswald killed Tippit in cold blood, firing four fatal shots on 10th Street in Oak Cliff before being arrested in the Texas Theatre. There, in his seat near the back row, he came close to killing yet another officer and would have, had the cop’s partner not been able to wedge a portion of his hand between the hammer and tong of Oswald’s gun — a near-murderous moment witnessed by dozens.
But is it entertaining?
Picky, picky, picky, as the pro-conspiracy hecklers might say. Historical quibbles notwithstanding, we guess it comes down to this: Is the show “entertaining” enough, to use Posner’s word, to transcend the barbs of critics? (Word of warning: New York reviewers won’t be the least bit timid in pointing out historical inaccuracies.)
But is it entertaining? Yes. Then again, so was Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK, about which Posner says, “That movie is still infuriating to me, because I think it’s a very good movie. It’s just terrible, terrible history. And that’s the problem. If he weren’t a good filmmaker, I wouldn’t be bothered.”
The millennial creators of Oswald deserve kudos for having the bravery to tackle the most daunting subject they could find.
In the end, maybe they should have cast Harrison Salisbury, because he nailed it, with a caveat we’ll add to his famous quote as our own frank assessment:
The year 3000 will see people still arguing about the president’s death.
Michael Granberry writes for The Dallas Morning News.