On the night last year that gunman Stephen Paddock shot dead 58 Las Vegas concertgoers in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, David Campbell had to go on stage and pretend to shoot a US president.

He was playing John Wilkes Booth – who killed President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 – in last year's Hayes Theatre production of Assassins The Musical.

Actor David Campbell plays assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

The show dissects the motivations of some of history's most notorious criminals – nine misfit Americans who killed (or planned to kill) their president – four of them successfully.

"Some days it is really hard to do this show, but a musical reflects its times and we'd like to think as artists we are giving a message about guns and gun control, in not nearly as powerful way as the students from Parkland, Florida, and the Sandy Hook parents continue to, but we hope we can make people think about Americans' long-time fascination with guns," Campbell says.

Actors Kate Cole, David Campbell, Bobby Fox and Jason Winston perform in Assassins The Musical.

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer


"The fact that there are so many weapons still in that country shows that the second amendment right to bear arms, has been weaponised to sell guns to hurt more people, and Americans are held hostage by NRA lobbyists."

Campbell won last year's Judith Johnson award for best performance by a male actor in a leading role in a musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards. Now after a sold-out season at the Hayes, the Stephen Sondheim musical is set for a return performance, opening at the Opera House on Tuesday.

Since the show opened at the Hayes, calls for gun control have been consistently in the headlines, most notably in March when the students of Parkland led a mass rally in Washington called March For Our Lives.

"When we did the show last time everyone was up in arms about Trump but now, since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Assassins has become way more resonant and frightening in different ways," musical director Andrew Worboys says.

The Stephen Sondheim musical opens at the Opera House on Tuesday.

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

"A musical about killing presidents set in a carnival breaks all the rules of a standard traditional musical comedy. It's Sondheim's favourite piece. In his mind it's his most accessible musical, and obviously – sadly – it is always going to be topical.

Since 1990, when Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, there have been more than 300 school shootings.

Time to kill: Kate Cole, David Campbell, Bobby Fox and Jason Winston.

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Lisa Campbell, the show's producer, sees parallels between the motivations of Booth, who was a passionate champion of the American south during the Civil War, and the current state of world politics.

"In the play there is this mournful longing for another time which articulates a lot of what people voting for Donald Trump were on about," she says. "We see it in Trump, we see it in Brexit, we see it in Pauline Hanson, this feeling that the times before were halcyon days – this political rhetoric has been going on since the Civil War."

Assassins The Musical, the third Hayes production to go to the Opera House since it began in Darlinghurst in 2014, will run at the Opera House until July 1.

Helen Pitt

Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.

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