September 18, 2021 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Sondheim was being stymied by historical events. After the truly massive success of Into The Woods, he delved into darker subjects for his next show, 1990's Assassins. An exploration of the American Dream and the broken people it fails, the show opened Off-Broadway just a month before the First Gulf War began. Public sentiment during wartime didn't favor criticism of US culture, and the show never transferred to Broadway. When it finally did land on The Great White Way in 2004, THAT production was delayed from its intended 2001 opening due to 9/11. Here is a "C-grade" VHS audience filming of the Broadway Production from 2004, with Neal Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris. It's watchable, but it isn't great.

For the truly truly curious, this nearly unwatchable (but with okay sound) bootleg of the original Off Broadway production in 1990 is available. With Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, and Patrick Cassidy, amongst others. [Ed. note: This is an earlier version of the script, without "Something Just Broke". It's funnier and tighter than the 2004 production.]

One curiosity from Assassins is the Original Cast Recording from 1990 [YT album, 56m] . The production had used a 3-piece band, intending to expand the score when transferring to Broadway. The orchestrations were completed after the show closed, and when the cast went in to record, it was the first time they had ever heard these arrangements of the songs they had been performing for weeks.

Sondheim, writer John Weidman, and others discuss the show in this Video Conversation Piece [1h6m]. Full of insights from the creative team.

2021 marks the 30th Anniversary of the premiere of Assassins, and this was marked, like much else in this pandemic era, with online panels and observances. Patrick Cassidy hosted The Assassins Reunion Show! [2h37m] in March, bringing together the creative team and most of the stars of the 1990 production for chat and reminiscence. Stars In The House brought together many of the same people in April. [1h30m] And members of the 1990 cast, the 2004 cast, and the upcoming 2021 production (directed by John Boyle) assembled for Tell The Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins [1h]

Any show this deeply researched has ancillary reading material! This excellent honors thesis from 2011 digs into the themes of the show, exploring how to approach a production. The use of pastiche in the show is explored in this article here, and in this one which includes sound clips for comparison and reference. And there's some lovely academic hand-wringing about the show in this lengthy PDF.

Finally, two little historical bits referenced in the show: Charles Guiteau's book The Truth, And The Removal, and some clips from Samuel Byck's audio tapes.
posted by hippybear (28 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I forgot to mention, the Video Conversation Piece has audio oddly dropped out when playing music from the cast album, I assume to avoid copyright takedown. The interviews are all intact.
posted by hippybear at 6:37 AM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Saw a small professional production in Boston a few years ago. Much cleverer and funny than I'd expected, but subversive. Lovely subversive. Perfect for a small theater group but hard to see how a large glossy broadway production would work. But what delicious irony if it was a hit and all the famous and big wig politicians needed to show up like they did for hamiltion.
posted by sammyo at 7:01 AM on September 18, 2021

In college, the theater department at my school put this show on, and I was a theater minor at the time, and I did my workstudy in the theater shop. It was honestly a hell of a lot of fun to work on, even if it was a weird, sort of uneven musical. The songs were pretty amazing, and it helped that the guy we had playing the narrator/Booth was absolutely amazing in the role. There was a really strong sense to the production that there was something different about it, something more transgressive or at least more risk taking than a small Midwestern liberal arts college tended to be.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:03 AM on September 18, 2021

Hippybear: Thought you might be interested to see this recent Sondheim piece in The Guardian.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:46 AM on September 18, 2021

Paul Slade: That documentary (although not taken from the new blu-ray release) is linked in the Company post.
posted by hippybear at 7:52 AM on September 18, 2021

I only know about this thanks to Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, but she was so enthusiastic about it I would love to see a new production.
posted by emjaybee at 7:54 AM on September 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sondheim has said he thinks it's his best musical, which I agree with. I was fortunate enough to see the 2004 version live, which is definitely one of the best things I've ever seen. I'd had only the vaguest idea who Neil Patrick Harris was at that point. When I got home, my partner looked at my program and said "You saw Doogie Howser?" and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Here's another analysis I like.

The whole show is so amazingly relevant right now.

Patrick Cassidy was so good in that reunion video.

And here's Brian Stokes Mitchell singing the flag song, that was cut from Assassins, on the Sondheim 90th birthday celebration.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 9:13 AM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have the cast album. I can see ways this would be problematic to perform as a play, but it sure is great as a song-cycle.
posted by acrasis at 9:29 AM on September 18, 2021

My dad had the cast album; my brother and I listened to it all the time as kids. I never realized that it was one of his less popular plays, we loved the songs.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:33 AM on September 18, 2021

Another National Anthem sometimes finds its way onto repeat in the mornings.

My wife is into Sondheim, but I have failed to get her to be as interested in the show as I am. (I like his other stuff, but this one really just appealed to me.) I adore this show, I think its incredibly clever and the songs are just so good.
posted by Hactar at 11:15 AM on September 18, 2021

... with Neal Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris. It's watchable, but it isn't great.

Doogie Louser
posted by y2karl at 11:18 AM on September 18, 2021

I had just moved to New York around the time that the original production was playing at Playwrights Horizons. It was completely sold out, of course, but still I dreamed about somehow being able to see it.

One day, there was a snowstorm, and I ran from my office temp job down to the theater to see if there were any weather-related cancellations. The gruff box office manager said (sympathetically) that there was some kind of special performance that night (for donors, or the like) so they wouldn’t be releasing any tickets to the public.

Just as I was leaving, her phone rang. She called out to me “Hey kid! Can you usher?” I was never so thankful for my thrift-store suit.

I did usher, and stood through the whole show, and it was a completely magical New York evening.

Later, when the cast recording was released, the orchestrations (as mentioned above) BLEW my MIND.

Later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Sondheim, and telling him about that night (but that’s another story for another day.)

Thank you again, hippybear, for this Sondheim series. It is a complete delight.
posted by profreader at 11:24 AM on September 18, 2021 [16 favorites]

I saw this post and started singing the Gun Song to myself while puttering around the house, and apparently the Sara Jane Moore part of it ("Shit where is it???") just sounded like the kind of things I sing to myself anyway and I had to explain to my spouse that it is from Assassins, and I didn't lose anything...
posted by Tesseractive at 12:28 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thanks for providing this! I also wanted to watch it since reading Assassination Vacation and I suspect it's not performed all that often. I'm also into presidential history, so.

Lordy, was Guiteau crazeballs. I remember reading in AV that the free love hippies at Oneida called him "Charles Gitout" because nobody wanted to sleep with him.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:28 PM on September 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Big fan of this. I don't know if I can actually say that I like the play, because I've never had a chance to see it, and I understand that a dog gets shot, which I can't have. Yes, I know. Don't tell me.

Anyway here's a rehearsal video of "Everybody's Got the Right," simple but well done I think. I used to put this one on playlists when I was in a bit of a mood.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:45 PM on September 18, 2021

Honestly, the main link in the post is good to watch. It isn't high quality, but it does give the effect of watching the show. If you've been curious, that's where to put your time.

The dog is shot offstage and turns into a bit. It is not a plot point.
posted by hippybear at 2:49 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I can’t find non-paywalled sources for all this, but:

Last year, the Shaw Festival on Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, was going to mount Assassins as a full musical. That production got Covid-cancelled, along with the rest of their season.

This year, they were set to save some of their labour investment by performing Assassins as an outdoor stage concert. Those concerts were then cancelled as well, with no explanation.

Eventually, the Festival released an odd statement explaining what had happened. Last year, they removed a racial slur from Booth’s song, and simply carried on. No-one thought anything of it, until this year, when the copyright holders got wind of the altered text (now for the concerts, not the full production), and refused to countenance any changes.

The Shaw then had a lot of lofty words about not being afraid of artistic challenges and of difficult subject matter, and then… pulled the plug on the whole thing, rather than perform the songs as written.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:27 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

There’s been no real answer on why the Shaw chose to cancel the whole shebang rather than present the concerts with some appropriate disclaimers and words of warning (especially if they are not afraid of difficult subject matter as they claim). My guess (which is only that) is that there was a workplace issue rather than an artistic one, that the use of the racial slur would make for a hostile work environment. No idea — the whole affair is quite puzzling.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:34 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's a very specific use of the word, too. Placed in the song where the audience might be empathizing with Booth and his observations about the country being broken, but then he uses that word to alienate the modern audience from his antiquated worldview. I'd have a hard time seeing it not being used in the production.
posted by hippybear at 3:36 PM on September 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

hippybear, I don't think I've thanked you yet for this Sondheim series, so: thank you! I've seen Assassins in local productions, and probably would have found my way up to New York in 2020 if the year hadn't gotten cancelled. It's one of my favorite shows, and one of the things I like is how well it walks that line - the characters are sympathetic and relatable at times, and the show never quite lets you off the hook for sympathizing and relating to them.

Re the Shaw production - Sondheim has updated offensive lyrics before (Company comes to mind). It's surely no accident that Booth's racial slur is still in Assassins in 2021. Like hippybear says, it's very deliberately used as a turning point, where Booth crosses a line that the audience - ideally - does not. I wouldn't say there's no other way to make that moment happen - but it seems right to me to require that productions achieve that effect.
posted by mersen at 4:40 PM on September 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I saw the 2004 production. Overall pretty effective in a high-production-value production. (I thought the tshirt thing was pretty gimmicky though). HOWEVER. I loathe the addition of Something Just Broke. The whole point of the thing is that it's from the PoV of the assassins, and that song just feels like the generic American Boomer voice, and, beyond that, derails the momentum of the ending sequence.

I went throigh an adolescent phase where I thought the distinction between the right to the pursuit of happiness and the "right to be happy" was the deepest thing, you guys. I still think it would be a worthwhile public philosophical conversation.
posted by DebetEsse at 6:04 PM on September 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

(I thought the tshirt thing was pretty gimmicky though)

Sondheim and Weidman are on record that the Balladier and Oswald should not be the same actor because they don't want the audience to think the cynicism of the gathered assassins singing Another National Anthem somehow transforms one character into another. It's become sort of standard to do this, however, because Oswald is otherwise a Bystander (chorus member) in disguise to this point in the show or else he enters for the end and that is all he does.

There are a lot of Sondheim shows that have people on stage for only one scene or two. Another character in Assassins who is hardly present is Emma Goldman, who I believe is only present for one offstage speech-giving and one scene on stage with Czolgosz.
posted by hippybear at 7:51 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

My favorite detail about Assassins is that the "I Am Going To The Lordy" bit from "The Ballad of Guiteau" was actually written by Charles Guiteau and he recited it at his execution. (He had requested an orchestra accompany him, but was denied.) Sondheim has said that the only other writer he has ever copied in his own work was quotes from William Shakespeare in The Frogs.
posted by dannyboybell at 8:46 PM on September 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Sondheim Is Writing a New Musical, and Hopes to Stage It Next Year [ungated] - "The actor Nathan Lane said he had recently participated in a reading of the show, titled 'Square One.'"
posted by kliuless at 9:26 PM on September 18, 2021 [5 favorites]

Just when I thought I had the run of this series planned out.
posted by hippybear at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Weird random thought that passed through my brain because of an unexpected input: The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald... Balladeer song? I think so.
posted by hippybear at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2021

Hippybear, just dropping a comment to thank you for rounding out my Sondheim education. These posts are consistently great and I enjoy them a lot.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 3:00 AM on September 20, 2021

It's a very specific use of the word, too. Placed in the song where the audience might be empathizing with Booth and his observations about the country being broken, but then he uses that word to alienate the modern audience from his antiquated worldview. I'd have a hard time seeing it not being used in the production.

I completely agree. I first heard of Assassins when I was asked by a friend in 1998 to sing the Balladeer part of the Ballad of Booth at his Master's recital. It's an amazing song, and the slur has exactly the impact you say, coming as it does at the emotional and musical climax of the piece. (For those unfamiliar with the piece, Booth refers to Lincoln as a "vulgar, high and mighty XXXXXX-lover.") [Mods, hope that's ok - didn't want others to be confused. Please remove if not.]

It's a prime example of how Sondheim at his best can use the contrast between music and lyrics to emphasize the ugliness of a particularly despicable character. (Pretty Women from Sweeney comes to mind.)
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:44 PM on September 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

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