Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Sondheim 101: Intro to Assassins

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Sondheim 101: Intro to Assassins

Article excerpt

Stephen Sondheim believes that the personal makings of an assassin - with a sinister, sometimes comical motive, intriguing temperament and a naturally troubled through-line - scream for the pen of a writer and lyricist. Sondheim, who created the 1990 show with John Weidman, admits that not every assassin can have his or her time onstage.

There are just too many of them.

"What we envisioned initially was a kaleidoscopic revue of assassins through the ages, from Brutus through Charlotte Corday via Gavrilo Princip to James Earl Ray," wrote Sondheim in Look, I Made a Hat. "It wasn't long before we realized we had bitten off more assassins than we could chew. The world's history is filled with them, every one a colorful passionate story."

Assassins was Sondheim's second collaboration with librettist Weidman; their first was Pacific Overtures, produced on Broadway in 1976; their third, Road Show, was presented by the Public Theater in 2008 (its earlier incarnation, Bounce, was staged in 2003 in Chicago and Washington, D.C.). Their three musicals feature historical but fictionalized characters and deal with either the loss of the American dream or the impact of American imperialism.

Narrowing their subjects to U.S.-based political murders and the potential, or successful, killers, Sondheim and Weidman found that that number, too, was quite unwieldy. Taking another stab at a character list, they finally found their footing.

Assassins examines nine efforts to kill American presidents. Four such attempts - on Abraham Lincoln (by John Wilkes Booth), James A. Garfield (by Charles Guiteau), William McKinley (by Leon Czolgosz) and John F. Kennedy (by Lee Harvey Oswald) - were, of course, successful. Other presidential targets in the show are Franklin D. Roosevelt (by Giuseppe Zangara), Richard Nixon (by Samuel Byck), Gerald Ford (by both Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) and Ronald Reagan (by John Hinckley). The writers omitted others, such as the 1950 failed attack on President Truman by two supporters of Puerto Rican independence; John Schrank, who shot Teddy Roosevelt (who survived); and Richard Lawrence, the man who tried to kill Andrew Jackson, the first known attempt on a president's life.

Despite Assassins' use of historical material, the musical is not a documentary account, as Sondheim and Weidman mingle fact and fiction, with the action moving back and forth in time, often bringing together characters from different eras. The structure of the show resembles a revue, with mostly brief sketches and episodes, some featuring musical numbers, others containing only dialogue. The wide-ranging score includes "Hail to the Chief," a Sousa march, a cakewalk, a tarantella, a folk song and a country-western ballad - each song designed to illuminate characters or events.

Sondheim was inspired by writer Charles Gilbert Jr. and his play, also titled Assassins. In 1979, while serving on the board of the nowdefunct Musical Theatre Lab, Sondheim read Gilbert's script. The story followed a Vietnam veteran who becomes a presidential assassin. Sondheim recalls that the opening scene of that play took place in a shooting gallery with a sign touting "SHOOT THE PREZ AND WIN A PRIZE."

Before too long, Sondheim was speaking to the original writer, seeking permission to "steal" his idea with the understanding that only the title of the show and the idea of the fairground shooting gallery would be used.

Assassins was first presented by the nonprofit Playwrights Horizons in New York City in December 1990, with direction by Jerry Zaks. In the chronology of Sondheim's career, it falls between Into the Woods (1987) and Passion (1994).

Mixed critical and public response, plus its ill-timed opening during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, limited its run to 73 performances. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, "This is not a message that audiences necessarily want to hear at any time, and during the relatively jingoistic time of war in which this production happens to find itself, some may regard such sentiments as incendiary. …

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