of Stephen Sondheim’s latest masterpiece are a little premature. But when was
there ever a time that Saint Sondheim didn’t
write a masterpiece? As surely as day follows night, Assassins , with its book by John Weidman about nine Presidential
assassins, was bound to be acclaimed. That’s the uncritical way with all things
forbid you might fail to respond favorably to his work. You will then be
accused of ignorantly wanting lyrics that rhyme and pretty, melodious tunes you
can sing along to. The debate about the “modernist” nature of Mr. Sondheim’s
work and his worldly cynicism has been going on for about 30 years, but let it
pass. We’re well used to his music by now, and we admire what we admire. But
halfway through Assassins at
Roundabout’s Studio 54, the sicko Samuel Byck, who tried to assassinate Nixon
in the 70’s, is manically dictating a recorded message to Leonard Bernstein.
Byck sent his rambling tapes to a number of other celebrities, but Mr. Sondheim
has chosen Bernstein for jokey and perverse reasons of his own. At the start of
his illustrious career, Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, of course, to
Bernstein’s West Side Story .
“TONIGHT, TONIGHT… ,” the self-loathing
Byck screams into the tape for Lenny. “Fuck me, fuck you. But Lenny, listen.
Listen to one small piece of advice from a true fan. Forget the long-hair shit
and write what you write best. Love songs .
That’s what we need! That’s what the world needs! ‘Lonely Town!’ ‘Maria!’ Tender
melodies to cherish for a lifetime! Timeless strains which linger in the memory
and the heart …. ”
uncomfortably clear that the musical taste of the self-hating Byck is an
unnecessary message from the self-hating Sondheim. He hates his former self-the
youthful lyricist of “I like to be in America / O.K. by me in America.” But, in
bitter, heavy irony, the true fan
wants nothing more from him. He wants “tender melodies to cherish for a
lifetime.” The “true fan” is sick, like Byck.
is why, I guess, the sweet, anodyne melody-entitled “Unworthy of Your
Love”-that follows could have been written by Burt Bacharach. It’s sung by John
W. Hinckley Jr. to Jodie Foster, becoming a duet with Squeaky Fromme.
I would swim oceans
I would move mountains
I would do anything for you
What do you want me to do?
chilly irony is Mr. Sondheim’s now-too-familiar calling card, and its message
is one of disenchantment. The killers and sickos in Assassins are of a piece with
Sweeney Todd (1979) and Passion (1994). His nutcases even link
to the urban neurotics on the verge of a nervous breakdown in his Company (1970). Sweeney’s creepy
serenade to his knife has become the assassin’s seductive song to his gun. Mr.
Sondheim’s musical and lyrical style, once boldly revolutionary, has become a
format. Look at the opening of Assassins
and its worldly refrain to killing:
Feel like you’re a failure?
Bailiff on your tail? Your
Wife run off for good?
C’mere and kill a
tempting invitation by someone named the Proprietor takes place in a funhouse
shooting gallery, the central motif of the show. (“Hit the Prez and win a
prize!”) Everyone from John Wilkes Booth to loony Sarah Jane Moore (who wanted
to assassinate President Ford) tries their luck.
decade ago, the metaphor of Suzan-Lori Parks’ extraordinary 1994 America Play was a shooting gallery.
Members of the public dress as Booth and shoot Lincoln. (“Roll up, roll up!”
“The South is avenged!”) Ms. Parks became so obsessed by her own haunting image
of history as a fairground that she repeated the theme in her recent Pulitzer Prize–winning play Top Dog/Underdog .
similar use of the shooting gallery in Assassins
doesn’t particularly matter. What matters most is that Ms. Parks re-invented an
American tragedy of lost souls and shattered us, whereas Mr. Sondheim and Co.
have oversimplified everything and left us cold.
/ got the right to be happy,” comments the wily Proprietor (who’s joined by another co-host, the Balladeer).
“Everybody’s / got the right / to their dreams …. ” Actually, they don’t. They
don’t have a right to anything. But the show’s sentimentalization of killers is
another matter. Mr. Weidman’s book blurs every assassin into the same loser
trying to fulfill the American Dream. Was Booth a Hinckley? Was Lee Harvey
Oswald a Squeaky Fromme? It’s a reductive one-size-fits-all pop psychology.
There’s another national
For those who never win
For the suckers
For the pikers
For the ones who might have
Brutus killed Caesar, apparently, for a shot at fame. But if the pursuit of
fame accounts for the motive of every assassin, we must thank our lucky stars
for Mr. Sondheim’s success. According to his own theory, had he been a failure,
he would have assassinated a President.
are only nine songs in the show. In effect, Assassins ,
directed by Joe Mantello, is an intermissionless revue with music. Mr. Mantello
isn’t at his best: His performers are too often overwrought, the underlit
ghouls lurking in the shadows are too melodramatically like exhibits in
Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. The huge, foreboding set of a skeleton
roller coaster is wasted, except for when one of the assassins hams up a
cakewalk to the gallows in the sky.
Sondheim’s gothic Sweeney Todd ended
by accusing the audience of being potential murderers, if you please. It was
meant to induce Brechtian guilt in the stalls. But why did Mr. Mantello
encourage his Assassins cast to point
their guns at the audience?
Weidman’s book is static and long-winded (the endless comic sketch between
Squeaky and Moore); or blatant (the heavy-handed destruction of American
symbols: the Coke bottle, the KFC bucket); or it’s predictably tired (the
President Ford pratfall). The possibilities of something more challenging
flickered to life in the scene between EmmaGoldmanandLeon Czolgosz, the
assassin of President McKinley. But in its showbizzy way, Assassins is a show about politics without politics.
is this more apparent than in its ultimate scene set in the Texas Book
Depository in Dallas. In a foolish rewrite of history, Lee Harvey Oswald is
portrayed as a man who’s about to commit suicide in the depository. But of all anachronistic things, the imagined
meeting between Oswald and the devilish ghost of Booth somehow manages to quote
from Death of a Salesman .
must be paid,” says Booth.
that mean?” asks Oswald.
from a play. About a salesman. A man very much like you, Lee. Independent,
proud, a decent man who tries but never gets a break …. ”
it were a parody, we might give it its due. But I ask you! Booth was an actor,
true. But should Arthur Miller be dragged into this?
opening of Assassins has been postponed over the years because
traumas like 9/11 made it impossible to produce. But that isn’t a sign of the
show’s outspoken boldness or daring. It’s a sign of a timid theater culture. To
come away from an allegedly shocking piece and not be moved and shaken by it in some way is the biggest surprise
of all. It’s the only surprise.
Shouldn’t we feel pity, at least? Some pity, some empathy for the damned. What
do we actually feel for the assassin?
the mournful number that follows President Kennedy’s death, “Something Just
Broke,” fails to touch us as it should. It’s the one moment when the outcome of
the assassin’s bullet is acknowledged. The song was added to the show when it
was produced in London in 1992. It’s as if on the long, checkered journey of Assassins to Broadway, someone
remembered to include grief.
then it’s quickly on to the show’s bouncy closing reprise in all showbiz irony:
Got the right
To be happy
Don’t be mad
Life’s not as bad
As it seems.