Literary Learnings

The Right to be Happy: A Fearful Glance at Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins

By A.E. Decker

Welcome to Literary Learnings, dear readers! Let me begin by stating that I do not advocate assassinating the president of the United States.

This is not a sentence I ever imagined using to open an essay, but the disclaimer seems necessary for any analysis of the musical Assassins, written in 1990 by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman. The authors of nearly every critique I’ve read on this work take care to make the same demurral. It’s especially important to say it now, during such a volatile election year, with the election itself coming up within a month of this essay being published.

I do not advocate assassinating the president of the United States. But I love Assassins.

You probably know who Stephen Sondheim is, even if you don’t recognize his name, or do not care for musical theater. There are likely few in America who haven’t heard “Tonight” or one of the other songs from West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics, or wouldn’t recognize “Send in the Clowns,” where he acted as both composer and lyricist. For those who love musical theater, Sondheim is acknowledged as the great master of the age, America’s greatest living composer. At the same time, it is unlikely that you would find the majority of his works being performed by your local community theater—prior to our present Covid-19 misery, I mean. Aside from being vocally extremely challenging, Sondheim’s works tend toward the cerebral, the cynical, and the dark.

 How dark? Well, his arguable magnum opus is Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a tale of vengeance, murder, and cannibalism. Other works include Passion, a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast tale with an obsessed stalker for a heroine; Follies, which spins a tale of adultery and disillusionment, and Into the Woods, which begins as a slightly off-kilter retelling of several well-known fairytales and ends up killing Rapunzel, Jack the Giant-slayer’s mother, and a number of others in the second act.

Even among this lot, Assassins stand out as the black sheep of the family. Sure, Sweeny Todd’s leading man is a barber who slits men’s throats while his partner bakes their bodies into pies. Assassins’ protagonists are the people who attempted to kill or succeeded in killing the president of the United States.

It’s disturbing. And hilarious. And then again, disturbing.

Frequently styled as a “musical revue” rather than a standard musical, Assassins lacks a straightforward plot. Instead, the action moves forward and back in time. The assassins, none of whom ever met in real life, congregate at a rundown carnival to converse, exhort, eat fried chicken (and occasionally shoot at the bucket it comes in), and air their grievances. There’s another character, the Balladeer, who acts as a counterpoint to the assassins. He observes them critically and sings about their motivations. Embodying the American Dream, he serves as a cheerful reminder of all that is good about this country and a rebuttal to all the assassins’ dark impulses.

Except, in many stagings of Assassins, the Balladeer turns into Lee Harvey Oswald at the end. Even in those productions that eschew this interpretation, the Balladeer is chased offstage and the assassins assume full control of the narrative. No matter the production, the assassins win. John Weidman’s script demands it.

Of course it does. Despite the fictional setting, the assassins were (or are—John Hinkley Jr., Lynette Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore are all still living) real people. Assassins plays with history, but it refuses to undo it. Uninterested in “what ifs,” it instead asks us to confront what is.

Assassins plays with history, but it refuses to undo it. Uninterested in “what ifs,” it instead asks us to confront what is.

Does every American have the “right” to be happy, as is claimed in the show’s opening song? Is the American Dream real? Do we truly believe that everyone is equal and that we can all advance through our own merits, or is that a naïve fairytale? Perhaps more important, is the American Dream a promise? If we, as a country, have set forth the idea that all people are equally respected and given the same opportunities, do we owe anything to those the system has failed? Do the failures prove the American Dream a failure? How much can we blame people for being angry, when they come to believe they’ve been lied to all their lives? How much do we sympathize with their despair when they lash out?

Assassins raises all of these questions without answering any of them. The final verdict is left to the audience. If Assassins ended with a condemnation of the killers’ actions, it would be easy to dismiss it after the curtain fell. You could sleep easy in your bed, comforted by the thought that the good side, the “right” side had gotten the final word on the subject of America. But Assassins insists we attempt to understand these people. It forces us to look at them, even live briefly in their heads. It reminds us that they were all, every one, Americans. Perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the four men who succeeded in assassinating a president.

John Wilkes Booth. Successful actor, ladies’ man, and supreme racist in an era of racism. His brother Edwin, a superior actor who supported the Union, disowned him. In 1865, Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the hopes of reviving the flagging Confederate cause.

Charles J. Guiteau. Conman, would-be preacher, would-be lawyer, would-be writer. A man who could not find a willing partner in a free love commune. He gave a speech to five or so people on the sidewalk outside the Republican convention in 1880, and subsequently decided James A. Garfield owed his election to him. When Garfield didn’t make him consul to Paris as a reward, Guiteau shot him in the back at a train station in 1881.

Leon Czolgohsz. Son of Polish immigrants, Czolgohsz (pronounced CHOAL-gosh) was a steelworker who lost his job in the crash of 1893. Blacklisted for striking, he lost his faith in both his religion and the American Dream. Suffering from illness, he became impressed with anarchist Emma Goldman. He shot William McKinley in 1901, in imitation of the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy.

Lee Harvey Oswald. Product of a troubled childhood, Oswald dropped out of school to join the Marines at age seventeen. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to grow disaffected with socialism and return to America in 1962. He shot John F. Kennedy in 1963. His exact motivations remain a point of contention among scholars and history enthusiasts.

These four men’s heinous acts changed the course of American history. And really, it was so simple. All it took, as Assassins’ centerpiece number “The Gun Song” proclaims, was the movement it took for a finger to pull a trigger.  And although it’s been decades since we’ve seen a presidential assassination or a serious attempt at one, gun violence has become a serious issue in contemporary America. Not a day without some perfectly innocent citizen being killed by random gunfire in this country. Sometimes it isn’t random. Sometimes, people shoot others because they feel no one is listening to them. A gun, they feel, gives them a voice. Gives them power. Today’s shooters are the assassins’ successors.

This issue, I feel, is at the heart of Assassins’ power. A merely historical show could remain safely in the past. By remaining open-ended, by playing with time, Assassins forces us to confront issues with American society today. Racism. Unemployment. Poverty, hunger, injustice. Much as we might like to deny it, Booth, Guiteau, Czolgohsz, and Oswald were Americans. They chose the path of violence, hoping to be heard. For some people, it seems the only answer to dealing with a system that grants power to some while keeping others down.

But we do have a power, as American citizens. We have the right to protest, to petition, and above all, to vote to elect the person we wish to represent our interests. So, this November, exercise that power. Vote. Vote by mail, or vote in person. Make your voice heard. And if you can, help others to raise their voices, too, by working at the polls, or offering to drive those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make it there—even if their opinions don’t match your own.

Let’s cease acting like America’s future is a sport that one team or the other is going to “win.” We are all Americans, regardless of our skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic we can imagine that may divide us. We are all Americans, whether we live in the North or South, in the country or the city. We are stronger together. We will learn more by listening to one another than shouting to drown one another out.

I hope together, we can build a country where everybody truly does have the chance to fulfill their dreams.

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