Last Friday, we went to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Theater Wit. This chilling musical is about presidential assassins, both successful and unsuccessful. It is very much a revue format rather than a plot based performance. Each assassin sings or talks about their motivations and thoughts behind their brutal acts (or attempts). Of all of Sondheim’s musicals, I was most eager to see this since I’d heard the soundtrack for years but I was curious as to how it was staged.
For me, this play is about the dark side of the American dream. We have this notion that the American Dream is that if we work hard enough, we’ll get what we want. That if we want to matter, we will matter somehow even if it means our name is reviled. Now, we can debate about the real meaning of American Dream is for hours but this conception is something that some people have. Some people believe that if they just work hard enough, want it badly enough and it doesn’t happen, there is something fundamentally wrong. Some people try to change the system for the better, some people react in horrible ways. Charles Guiteau is a prime example of the later. He wanted so badly to be the Ambassador of France, felt that he deserved it, and then killed James Garfield when his request was brushed aside. Or you have would-be assassin John Hinckley who was obsessed with Jodie Foster and felt that this would be the way to win her heart. If he just got her attention, he’d achieve his dream The first song has the cautionary words, “Everybody’s free to fail.” What a stark reminder of how that can be interpreted.
The play also looks at the American public’s role in these moments of history. My favorite song “How I saved Roosevelt” is about the people in the crowd talking about their roles in the tragedy (The assassin missed Roosevelt but killed Anton Cermak instead). Each person inserted themselves into the drama, playing up their insignificant role as essential. What an apt song! Another song deals with the audience each remembering where they were when JFK was shot. The chilling song suggests that acts like this unify a nation, even if it is for a moment. Very interesting meditation.
I enjoyed the performance. It did get off to a rocky start because I could not hear the first two songs. However, this vastly improved as the play went along. We saw the first preview so I imagine they are still working out the details. But the show was well staged with a magnificent use of lights. The first song sets up the outer story as if it were a carnival game. Shoot and win a prize (yes, it’s a very dark play). There is a wall of lights with little caricatures of president’s face. When an assassin takes a shot, the lights either all light up because they’ve “won” or a buzzer rings because they’ve missed. Brilliant set up.
Also, I rather appreciated that the actors never pointed guns at the audience. That was something I had never considered until the first song when each assassin was holding a gun. The musical is unnerving enough without it.
The songs are rather clever, especially the ballads of the assassins themselves. For us, the best song was the Ballad of Guiteau. The actor who played Charlie Guiteau really embraced his character’s craziness. Guiteau was delusional so, but he’s not toxic like the other assassins. He’s almost childlike in his exuberance, which is enjoyable to watch as it is unsettling. I love that the song includes the song that he sang as he walked toward his own execution: “I’m going to my Lordy.” The whole song is bizarrely catchy.
So check it out if you want to be thrilled and chilled.