It takes effort to embrace some of the works of Stephen Sondheim, since his themes, concepts, musical scores and lyrics are sometimes too sophisticated, different or just down-right weird to be appreciated by the general audience. One thing that can definitely be said about the extremely prolific composer is that he is never repetitive and he does not settle for the normal tropes of musical theatre. Very seldom is the typical romantic "boy meets girl" storyline used as the central plot of a Sondheim musical, and "Happily Ever After" rarely seems to be part of his vocabulary. Instead Sondheim is always searching for the next new twist. His eclectic body of work includes an operatic kabuki-styled show set in 19th century Japan, a story that is told backwards chronologically, a story-less series of vignettes about relationships and commitment that brought the "concept musical" into the mainstream, and a musical inspired by a famous 19th century painting where the first half of the show magically brings the painting to life.
—Charles Guiteau killed James Garfield in 1881, Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley in 1901 and of course, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy in 1963. The show also features four other unsuccessful assassination attempts, made by Giuseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933), Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon 1974), and the pair of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who each made separate attempts on Gerald Ford in 1975. Assassins the Musical explores the back-stories of these down-and-out losers and the motivations that propelled them to commit these brazen and heinous acts, all in warped pursuit of the "American Dream". In an interesting twist, all these assassins from different time periods interact throughout the show, goading, commiserating with and feeding off of each other.
The show proceeds to delve deeper into the psyche and motivations of the assassins. In particular, the three successful ones (Booth, Czologosz, and Guiteau) each gets his own ballad, sung in story-telling fashion by an anonymous "balladeer". Sondheim made a point of writing each of these songs as a pastiche, mimicking the music of the era of each assassin. Hinkley and Fromme sing a duet "Not Worthy of Your Love" each declaring devotion to the object of his/her obsession--Jodie Foster and Charles Manson respectively. Based on just to the melody, this sounds like a traditional romantic love song contradicted by lyrics that convey a chilling psychotic infatuation—"Tell me how I can earn your love". Zangara's song is interesting because it is not told from his point of view and it does not describe the attempted shooting of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eschewing exposition, Sondheim instead writes a song about the reactions and aftermath of the shooting, sung by five witnesses who each claimed to have played a part in "saving" Roosevelt by interrupting or distracting him as he stood on a chair in a crowd aiming his gun at the President. Sara Jane Moore's character is played mostly for comedic effect with her bravado and bumbling clumsiness with her gun. Dressed like a suburban soccer mom, she even brings her child and dog to an attempted assassination. Byck spends the show dressed like Santa Claus in reference to an outfit that he wore during a political protest. Instead of a song, he is given several verbal rants reflecting actual attempts that he made to contact public figures including Leonard Bernstein. Watching this show really gives you a great lesson in a sordid part of American History.
By now the show is almost over and we were wondering what happened to the most infamous assassin of recent history, Lee Harvey Oswald? Apparently this was a deliberate and debated choice by Sondheim and his co-creators. Originally Oswald was to appear in the opening with the others but it was suggested to Sondheim that it would be more impactful to save him for the finale. The musical has undergone a few iterations since its inception. While it was not originally the case, in the version that we watched, the innocent, fresh-faced looking balladeer turned into the character of Lee Harvey Oswald. It was a bit shocking and maybe points to the adage that you can't really judge a book by its cover. Oswald appears as a depressed and confused young man who originally intended to kill himself. Instead he is urged by the other assassins to shoot JFK as a means of validating their joint purpose—"With your act, we are revived and given meaning... People will hate you with a passion. Imagine people having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald!! ..". The powerful song "Something Just Broke" again does not directly refer to the assassination but instead soulfully portrays the feelings of the Nation after losing their President.
As usual, Stephen Sondheim created an innovative musical unique not only from what any other composer has written, but also different from any of his own works. His creative songs span many styles within the same show and integrate in an interesting fashion with John Weidman's book. Even though it took a bit of historical homework for me to fully appreciate the musical Assassins, this was an enjoyable experience for me.