By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
As the play begins, we hear the sounds of carnival music bleeding into “Hail to the Chief.” A barker’s voice rings out: Hey, pal, feelin’ blue?/ Don’t know what to do?/ Hey, pal, I mean you, yeah!/ Come here and shoot a president! A crowd of disgruntled men and women surround him, and he promises them, “everybody’s got the right to be happy.”
Welcome to the dark Fantasia that is Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. In this carnival shooting gallery, the targets are presidents and the prize at stake is infamy. All of the familiar villains are in one place–John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, John Hinckley, and more–discussing their obsessions, explaining their actions. A Balladeer encourages their confessions and offers critiques. It is a bitterly funny piece, but one that uncovers some hard truths about American culture.
Americans learn from their infancy to expect hard work and big dreams to pay off. For most of us, there comes a realization that life is more complicated than that, that we may be deserving and still fail. Not everyone handles that revelation with grace and dignity. Some take out their frustrations at the expense of the country.
Assassins overflows with historical details, from the well-known motivations of Booth to the largely forgotten thoughts of Sarah Jane Moore, who attempted to shoot Gerald Ford. (The liner notes for the 2004 Broadway recording detail the specifics of each crime, too.) “The Ballad of Guiteau” quotes directly from the speech Garfield’s assassin gave at his hanging; “The Ballad of Czolgosz” offers tidbits about President McKinley’s private life.
Sondheim is less concerned with the act itself than with what motivates a person to commit it. The unifying motive–if there is one–seems to be that each assailant feels insignificant, left out of the American Dream. Killing a president is their way to be heard, to reclaim some of their humanity. It’s an insane response to mundane disappointment, and though the assassins are given a chance to speak, the Balladeer rebuts them.
I saw a production of the show last year at the University of Baltimore. Afterwards, I talked to a theater guy whose wife had appeared in the play.
“It’s no one’s favorite Sondheim,” he said. He was talking about its limited run off-Broadway in 1990 and its niche appeal. (This is never going to air on NBC as Assassins Live!) The 2004 revival (starring Neil Patrick Harris) won five Tonys, but didn’t result in massive national tours. The music is so specific that it’s practically impossible to sing outside the context of the play.
Strangely enough, though, this might very well be my favorite Sondheim show. It’s clever, funny, full of rage, and awash in presidential history. What’s not to like?