Stage Door News

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Shaw Festival cancels “Assassins” when Stephen Sondhein forbids change in lyrics

Monday, August 9, 2021

In response to customer enquiries that we have received, we wanted to address the cancellation of our concert performances of Assassins.

Without going into the whole backstory, we feel it is important for you to know the basics of what brought us here.

One of the songs in Assassins contains a racial slur. The offensive word is sung by Lincoln' s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and is used, itself, as a condemnation of Booth's character.

The show began Zoom rehearsals in early 2020. Naturally, the offensive term was not used as it would have been inappropriate to do so in such an isolating system.

A year later, the show was reinvented as a concert performance, in a new space, and with a new creative team. By then the substitution of language had unwittingly become established as a fact even though the rights holders had not been alerted to the change.

Consequently, it was only very late in the day when the rights holders learnt the lyric had been changed. They felt that Booth's character, along with the context of the song, makes the word crucial, and asked, as is their right, that the piece be performed unchanged.

If we had been faced with this dilemma at the right time, (before we started to rehearse), this could have been the spark for a valuable conversation. After all, we do not take it as self-evident that offensive language can never be used on stage. Context and understanding matter. Indeed, in another show this season, our process has properly dealt with the use of the same word.

What's more, we are committed to doing challenging and difficult work, but to do so without time for proper consideration and understanding, as was the case with Assassins, would be unfair both to our company and our audience. So, we, as Shaw's leaders, made the decision to pull the remaining performances.

Of course, the whole team are united in their disappointment and frustration at not being able to share their beautiful work with audiences, but we very much hope that this will be a postponement, not a cancellation: we hope to have a chance to get it right once we can start again.

And, more broadly, we are working to get more things right. Throughout the last year we have been working on changes to ensure increased care and diligence throughout each creative process. If nothing else, this episode is a sharp illustration of how careful we have to be in future.

We apologize again to everyone who is disappointed by the cancellation of these performances. Those people with whom we have already been in contact have shown great understanding. We would like to thank them, and all our Shaw communities, for helping us to get through these unusual and stressful times.

Tim Carroll, Artistic Director, Shaw Festival

Tim Jennings, Executive Director, Shaw Festival