I have loved the score of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins since I first heard the off-Broadway soundtrack in the early 1990s. The stylistically varied music reflected the historic scope of the tales being told and offered a unification of storytelling the likes of which I had never heard. I was a bit nervous to see my first professional staging of a score I had loved and had strong feelings about for such a long time, but seeing this Assassins was a full realization of all that I could imagine for this show. I left feeling drained but also knowing that I had experienced an important work of stagecraft.
My feelings about Assassins, the co-production between The 5th Avenue Theater and ACT, are difficult to unpack, but I will attempt to share some of my thoughts. I saw the show right after a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense meeting where I learned some staggering statistics about American children growing up in homes with loaded and unlocked guns. I learned that children in America are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun in the home than children in other developed countries. I also learned that 1.7 million children live in homes where there is a loaded and unlocked gun. And I heard the heartbreaking stories of children killed, unintentionally, by guns. I left this meeting to see the new production of Assassins at ACT and I was geared up for a challenging show that dealt with the complex issue of guns in America. But I was wrong. Yes, there are guns featured (there’s even a song dedicated to their allure). Yes, there are gun shots (lots of them, and they are loud). And yes, presidents are killed, but there is very little violence. In fact, there is no blood spilled on stage. The only glimpse the audience gets of a dead man is when one of the assassins is hanged for his crime.
Assassins is not about guns, or even gun violence. Instead, it is about what it means to be American and to seek the Dream that is part of our national psyche. It is about the cult of celebrity and what makes someone famous. It is about mental illness. It is about history and all of the people, both good and bad, who make up the story of our country. But ultimately it is about humanity, both the dark and light sides of being human.
Sondheim does not glorify the lives of the Assassins. But he does humanize them. Despite the heinous acts these people committed (and yes, I believe murder is a heinous act), they are human and have the same hopes, desires and dreams that we all have. What surprised (and troubled) me the most in seeing the show was how often I empathized with the men and women featured. I have felt feelings of loneliness and despair. I understand the feeling of not being heard or appreciated. And I share feelings of frustration with government and society at large. But I don’t believe that the answer to my own struggle is to shoot someone in order to make myself heard. And that is where I, and the assassins portrayed in the show, differ.
Assassins is about a group of people desperate to be heard, but who feel lost and hopeless. The show opens with the song “Everybody’s Got the Right (To be Happy).” Isn’t that the American Dream? “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams…Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine,” sing the show’s characters. And this is true. Our country was founded on the principles that we are free to make our own choices and free to speak our minds. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But at what cost? In Assassins, Sondheim gives us 9 men and women who are lost in their own pursuit of happiness and who, in acts of desperation, commit or attempt to commit murder to make a statement.
And they become celebrities. It is ironic that the only actor from the 1860s whose name anyone remembers is John Wilkes Booth. He became famous not for his work on stage, but for killing President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. The musical forces us, the audience, to question the “cult of celebrity” and consider who becomes famous and why.
For me, the heart of the show comes with the song “Something Just Broke.” All the actors are on stage singing about hearing “the President’s been shot” and feeling all of the grief and loss that come in that moment. But there’s something more. There is also the feeling that we as a society are “broke[n].” People feel so disconnected, that we cannot find an avenue for our voice, and some feel the need to act out in extreme ways. Sondheim and Weidman are not advocating for murder, but they are forcing us, as members of a society, to investigate how and why we feel disenfranchised. Perhaps that is what we see and hear playing out in this year’s election cycle?
I left the theatre feeling sad, but also hopeful. That may sound like a paradox, but I walked away feeling the need to talk to people, to share my thoughts and to find ways to connect. Perhaps if we connect more, talk more, love more and care more than we will not feel so alone and desperate in the world.
And that is the power of good theatre.
By ANYA RUDNICK, Director of Education and Outreach
Photo by TRACY MARTIN, Mark and Tracy Photography
Stephen Sondheim is our greatest musical theater dramatist. From his first produced work, West Side Story, to his most recent, Road Show, he has brought a playwright’s careful plotting and an actor’s toolbox of subtext, timing, and stagecraft to the writing of music and lyrics. His songs are complete dramatic texts, conceived as written “performances,” with nuances, pauses, and stage action written into the score.
RICHARD RODGERS composed his first songs at a summer camp, then wrote music for shows at Columbia University. A friend introduced him to a smart young lyric writer, Larry Hart, who shared his ambitious artistic goals. The two wrote several clever scores, but they attracted little attention and Rodgers seriously considered an offer to quit and sell children’s underwear.
They finally got their big break in 1925 with a small benefit show that won raves from the critics. For the next fifteen years Rodgers & Hart were one of the top teams on Broadway, writing 28 stage musicals and over 500 songs.
OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II was born into a show business family. His grandfather built theaters and opera houses, and his father managed the biggest vaudeville palace in Manhattan. The family wanted him to become a lawyer, but show business was in his blood and he quit law school to write lyrics for Broadway musicals.
Hammerstein had a huge hit with the groundbreaking 1927 musical Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern. But for years he wasn’t able to follow Show Boat with another hit, and by 1940, Hammerstein wondered if his time had passed.