Another National Anthem
December 8, 2012 12:46 PM   Subscribe

For everyone who's thinking about assassins today, I offer up Sondheim and Weidman's take.

Opening off-Broadway in 1990 and revived in 2004, Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, uses the setting of a carnival shooting gallery to introduce a revue-style portrayal of some of the men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate Presidents of the United States.

A commentary on disenfranchisement and powerlessness, hopes and dreams, high expectations and false promises, motivations and consequences, and American culture, Assassins is still one of the most controversial musicals produced in the U.S.

The music of each song reflects the popular music of the specific era depicted, but also provides a point of view on the action. The cheeriness of the music to "Everybody's Got the Right" [to be Happy] contrasts with the disillusionment of the assassins singing it. The music (and opening lyrics) to "Unworthy of Your Love" sounds like a simple Burt Bacharach-style ballad, but sung John Hinckley and Lynette Fromme to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, it becomes a chilling illustration of their passions and their feelings of hopelessness.

By developing the characters of historic assassins, Assassins prompts audiences to consider their motivation. Scott Miller writes that "This is a very smart, very insightful piece of theatre about what's wrong with America -- too many guns, too much anger, a bullshit American Dream continually promised but never delivered upon, and a culture crazy in love with violence. This is a country built on guns, won with guns, and now killing its own children with guns ... Most notably, most of the assassins (Booth being a major exception) led very sad, very lonely lives that left them feeling left out of the American Dream, disenfranchised, ignored, betrayed by their country."

From the moment we hear "Hail to the Chief" in 3/4 time - the wrong meter - we know things are amiss. Surprisingly funny at times, Assassins is a serious musical about nine of the people, who, through madness or political conviction, or both, too often succeeded in changing the course of history and bringing immense pain to the world.
posted by still_wears_a_hat (15 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I wasn't thinking about assassinations before . . .

And by the bye, whatever else one can say about Burt Bachrach's ballads, "simple" is not the first word that comes to mind to this musician's way of thinking.
posted by spitbull at 12:55 PM on December 8, 2012

A theater-major friend introduced me to Assassins years ago. At first I was just interested in the novelty of the concept, but it turned out to be a decent musical, too.
posted by mediated self at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2012

As a Sondheim-loving Brit I must say that ASSASSINS has taught me more about President Garfield than I would otherwise ever have known... GREAT musical.
posted by alasdair at 1:25 PM on December 8, 2012

"Unworthy of Your Love" is such a wonderfully twisted song, with the meaning totally changing depending on whether or not you have the context of the show or just the specific text of the song. The "Next to Normal" song "I'm Alive" has a similar level of dissonance between the text and the meaning.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:30 PM on December 8, 2012

As 16-18 year old auditioning for school musicals or community theater I would use some of the songs from this show as audition pieces. I am so glad I don't take myself seriously anymore because a child singing about the miseries of capitalism to get a role as guido #3 in Grease is hilarious.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:33 PM on December 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

Assasins is a fascinating hunk of theater. Like a lot of Sondheim's shows (the exception being the dramaturgically perfect Sweeny Todd), it presents some big problems for a director to fix---in particular, the relationship between the narrator and the characters, and the choppy scenel transitions. But also like a lot of Sondheim's shows, the things it's doing are so unusual and ambitious it's worth smashing yourself against its rocks. I've never seen a production that fully works, and I've never seen a production that wasn't really interesting.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:41 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd be satisfied with an America that was as self-aware as West Side Story.
posted by benzenedream at 3:54 PM on December 8, 2012

Saw an interesting production (NYC maybe?) some years ago in which the curtain came up, and the titular assassins were seated facing us in seats similar to the ones we were in. It was a great and unexpected moment, and the production in general was pretty great as well.

"The Ballad of Booth" is my favorite, although that may have to do with the fact that it's the one that I've most often heard excerpted in revues.
posted by the sobsister at 4:12 PM on December 8, 2012

My university theater department did this show, but it was in my senior year when I was sort of moving out of theater (dropped the major to a minor, stopped working on every show). Still, I went to the show to see my friends and classmates. I was pretty amazed by the show, and the ending was creepily awesome, with booth and the other assassins urging Oswald to kill Kennedy and in doing so legitimize all the other assassins, making them more than isolated crazies. It's not a simple, or easy musical, but it's very, very interesting.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:29 PM on December 8, 2012

My brother played Zangara in a local production a few years ago in a space so intimate that the intensity was sometimes difficult to watch. I enjoyed it immensely, but I'm all for the Sweeney-Todd-ification of the American Musical Theatre. "More dark! More dark!"
posted by ariel_caliban at 6:41 PM on December 8, 2012

I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned that heartthrob Neil Patrick Harris was in the 2004 broadway version, and does a hell of a fine job as Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a great musical and well worth getting the soundtrack, just for NPH's performance alone.
posted by SPUTNIK at 5:03 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The history of the show is quite rocky, given its original production opened around the same time of Gulf War I - and the 2004 revival was originally scheduled to open in September 2001. Both times, patriotism got in the way of the musical staying open or opening at all, which is a nice bit of irony.

Sondheim considers Assassins his only perfect show, which seemed surprising to me at first - since, as ThatFuzzyBastard says, it's a tricky show to get right. But, of course Sondheim would think a tricky show to get right would be his perfect show. His shows are never easy - and this is one of the hardest.
posted by crossoverman at 5:56 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

But if you see it done well it really is perfect. At least arguably, and I'd argue it. I saw the 2004 revival - the one with Neil Patrick Harris, whom I'd never heard of - from the second row, and it's one of the best theatrical events of my life.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 6:11 AM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

The University of Tennessee Knoxvile uploaded their 2007 production. Part one is here. And here is the Tony Awards performance of the 2004 cast doing "Everybody's got the right," with NPH, and Mario Cantone as Byck.

After listening to a CD of the original production, I was happy to find a version of the whole thing online.
posted by goofyfoot at 2:25 PM on December 10, 2012

Of course, an up-to-date version would involve persuading a young man that the way to fame and attention and world-wide infamy was to shoot up a school. Softer target than a President, just as much attention.
posted by alasdair at 6:21 PM on December 14, 2012

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