Yesterday I was suddenly reminded of one of my favorite musicals – Assassins. It is, of course, a Stephen Sondheim creation – Sondheim, whom I consider to be the Shakespeare of our age. I spent a lot of time today listening to my favorite songs from the Original Broadway recording.
Assassins is a musical about all the people who have tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to assassinate a President of the United States. At first flush, it appears to be a rather whimsical choice for something to create a musical about – but in the hands of Sondheim, it’s incredibly powerful. This is, after all, a master we’re talking about, and if he could pull off a musical about the history of imperialism in Japan, he can certainly do this.
I listened to songs from Assassins long before I saw the musical live (on Broadway, in 2004). As always, Sondheim’s playwrights let him down, and perhaps his directors too. I expected a dark and intense tragedy of a musical, which it was, for the most part (at least while the songs were on) but there were inappropriate attempts at humor and comedy, which, in my opinion, were very distracting.
Almost all of the songs are sung by the assassins, each one presenting his point of view. The Ballad of Booth is the tour de force – a long, 9-minute song sung by John Wilkes Booth —
“Damn you, Lincoln, and damn the day you threw the ‘U’ out ‘USA’…”
interspersed with a balladeer —
“Traitors just get jeers and boos, not visits to their graves
And Lincoln, who got mixed reviews, because of you, John, now gets only raves.”
My favorite song in Assassins, though, is “How I Saved Roosevelt”. Guiseppe Zangara, a poor, hungry bricklayer, shot at FDR in 1933 at a public speech. He missed, killing the mayor of Chicago instead.
The song is a masterpiece of polyphony, which is where Sondheim always comes into his element. The song starts with a bunch of spectators at the speech, reporting excitedly what they saw. Suddenly, Zangara’s voice breaks in, trying to explain why he did it… but soon, he’s drowned out by the spectators again. Everyone is delighted to have witnessed the shooting, and everyone claims that they somehow ‘saved Roosevelt’ – by not letting Zangara get closer, by pushing his chair away, whatever. And no one cares what Zangara has to say, only how exciting it was for them –
“This makes our vacation a real success!”
(“Are you with the press? -Yes. -Oh God, I’m a mess…”)
“Some left-wing foreigner, that’s my guess,
And wasn’t the band just fantastic?”
“No left, no right, no anything – only American.
Zangara American – American nothing.”
When I heard the music of Assassins, I thought it was a powerful indictment of society’s indifference to non-conformity – we don’t listen to the voices of the marginalized, the mad, the obsessed. We ignore them, and think that by ignoring them, the voices will go away. They never do. And once in a while, one of the voices becomes frustrated, goes insane, and does something that affects us all.
I always thought Sondheim’s theme in Assassins was about the unheard voices. The song, “Another National Anthem,” captures that, with its haunting refrain of “Where’s my prize? Don’t I get a prize?” by the assassins —
“There’s another national anthem, and it’s not the one you hear at the ballpark…
It’s the other national anthem, it says ‘Bullshit’, it says ‘Never’, it says ‘Sorry’ loud and clear.”
This is the song when the assassins realize they haven’t accomplished anything, and if anything, they’ve only damaged the causes they were fighting for. And for me, it’s the saddest song of the album.
The show I saw, however, had a completely different spin. It was a victory of triumphalism, where, again and again, the musical would emphasize that the ‘people won’ against the ‘assassins’ and their ‘futile attempts’.
When I retire rich, I’d love to direct Assassins – done my way.