Killing Us Softly With His Song: Assassins Misses Target

Reports

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

Sonheimean.

Heaven

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

what’s this!

About

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 …. “

It’s

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.

Which

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?

Insistent,

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:

Hey, fella.

Feel like you’re a failure?

Bailiff on your tail? Your

Wife run off for good?

Hey, fella,

Feel misunderstood?

C’mere and kill a

president.

The

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.

A

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 .

The

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.

“Everybody’s

/ 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

anthem, folks

For those who never win

For the suckers

For the pikers

For the ones who might have

been ….

Even

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.

There

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.

Mr.

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?

Mr.

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.

Nowhere

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 .

“Attention

must be paid,” says Booth.

“What’s

that mean?” asks Oswald.

“It’s

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 …. “

If

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?

The

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?

Even

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.

But

then it’s quickly on to the show’s bouncy closing reprise in all showbiz irony:

Everybody’s

Got the right

To be happy

Don’t be mad

Life’s not as bad

As it seems.

It isn’t?