In high school, I sneaked into a theatre festival and saw “Assassins,” a musical by the late Stephen Sondheim.
While I was scheduled to be at a dress rehearsal for my own show, I ended up at the festival instead since I had won a playwriting competition. But when the circus-like music from “Assassins” began to play, I was completely transfixed. I just couldn’t up and leave.
Off-“Assassins,” Broadway’s with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, premiered in 1990 and closed after only 73 performances to mixed reviews.
The musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim passed away on November 26 at the age of 91, and since then, countless tributes have been written in his honour, with many applauding his heartfelt tunes, clever lyrics that play so much with language, and penchant for penning show-stopping numbers. Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979), and West Side Story (1957) are all notable for their memorials to Sondheim (1957).
The Word “Assassins” is Rarely Mentioned.
There is not a single song from the play on NPR’s list of “10 Stephen Sondheim’s Songs We’ll Never Stop Listening To.” It didn’t do horribly, but nobody’s exactly singing its praises either.
From John Wilkes Booth to John Hickley Jr., the assassins and would-be assassins of presidents are told in “Assassins” in a series of interconnected tales.
Similar to Sondheim’s musicals like “Into the Woods” (1986), a narrator named “The Balladeer” provides some narrative cohesion. The staging is influenced by the idea of a gloomy sideshow.
Buzzers and bells ring out, giving the stage the atmosphere of a shooting gallery. The carousel-like atmosphere is achieved through the abundance of calliope in the background score. Imagine “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” but with a plot to kill the president.
The songs are as memorable, melodious, and unexpected as any other Sondheim score, while occasionally sounding like they were lifted straight from “Into the Woods,” particularly the prologue and “Last Midnight.”
Couplets like “Some guys say they can’t be winners./First prize often goes to rank beginners” are just as catchy in their rhyme scheme. Also, violence is not uncommon in Sondheim’s works. The murderer in “Sweeny Todd” is not the only one with murderous intentions; there are other cannibals in the story.
However, there are no non-killers in “Assassins.”
In most instances, the Balladeer also takes on the role of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Some of the earliest reviews accused the show of being “unpatriotic” because of all the bloodshed it featured during the Gulf War. A Los Angeles Times article’s first line reads, “Talk about lousy timing.”
However, is there Ever an Appropriate Moment to Stage a Musical About Killers in the United States?
In the programme, assassins from all points in time and space congregate in a killers’ clubhouse of sorts, where they support and inspire one another.
Assassin of President James A. Garfield in 1881 Charles Guiteau instructs Sara Jane Moore (of 1975) on the finer points of the firearm. Moore and Manson girl Squeaky Fromme, who both attempted to assassinate President Ford, shoot at a bucket of chicken.
In “Assassins,” many firearms are fired live on stage. In the catchy ballad “The Gun Song,” characters brandish firearms. Guiteau flicks one off to the spectators.
It’s hard to tell if the characters’ gun-holding hands are actually an extension of their own or if they’re just permanently occupied. Moore, the child’s mother, shoots the dog and threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t stop weeping and eat his ice cream.
A Significant Plot Point is Lacking in “Assassins.”
It’s more of an underlying philosophy that, sadly, is shared by some mass murderers in the present day. Sadness, unrequited love, and the assassins’ failures have left them feeling isolated and alone.
They imagine that by killing a well-known person, they will get fame and fortune. Expose them in a roundabout way. That it’s the only way to make a difference in the world, or something along those lines: “We do the only thing we can do./We kill the president.”
There has, of course, been yet another shooting after that report was written. Before I finish this, there will inevitably be another.
Lyrics like “What I did was kill the man who killed my country” ring all too true in a post-Trump America, as does the protagonists’ (mainly male) pervasive sense of isolation and despair at being cast aside by a society they believe no longer needs them.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is the only event in the show where the aftermath of violence is shown. In the end, even the onlookers singing about where they were when they got the news come to a sombre conclusion: “Nothing has actually ended/just suspended.” It’s an odd defence of the musical in question.
Some of “Assassins” feels very dated. Several of the killers had thick foreign accents since they are immigrants. Characters like Moore and Guiteau, who have mental health problems, are used for comedic effect.
A few months ago, the Shaw Festival scrapped a play because the rights owner wouldn’t let them replace Booth’s use of the n-word during a tirade against President Abraham Lincoln.
I saw the brand new play “Front” at a university a few months after watching “Assassins” while I was a senior in high school. British writer Robert Caisely’s “Front” depicts the lives of Londoners in the midst of the Blitz in World War II.