Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book: John Weidman

The idea for Assassins first planted itself in Stephen Sondheim's mind when he was serving on a panel at Stuart Ostrow's Musical Theater Lab and read a play by a young playwright named Charles Gilbert. Gilbert had submitted a script about a fictional presidential assassin, and although Sondheim found the play itself problematic, he was fascinated by the peripheral material Gilbert had compiled--letters and anecdotes from actual assassins. Several years later, after obtaining permission from Gilbert, Sondheim decided to tackle the project along with John Weidman, a lyricist whom he had previously collaborated with on Pacific Overtures.

Originally, Sondheim and Weidman intended to explore the lives of assassins throughout history beginning with Brutus and Julius Caesar, but they soon realized this was far too broad a topic and decided to limit themselves to assassins who had attempted to kill the President of the United States. As the project developed, their task soon became clear--to dramatize the unpopular thesis that the most notorious killers in our culture are as much a product of that culture as the famous leaders they attempt to murder.

As the musical opens, a crowd is gathering at a carnival shooting gallery which features a revolving wheel on which various Presidents are depicted. Attempting to entice customers towards his stand, the proprietor of this little shooting gallery shouts out loudly, "C'mere and kill a President!" From this nightmarish beginning, the play goes on to examine the lives of various men and women who have committed--or attempted to commit--the ultimate crime. Sondheim and Weidman show little regard for historical accuracy, freely mixing characters from different periods in a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory revue. From Samuel Byck who hijacked a plane and tried to kill Nixon by crashing into the White House to Charles Manson groupie Squeaky Fromme to the infamous John Wilkes Booth--each presidential assassin is made to confront the fact that his or her act of meaningless violence failed to bring about the desired results. For these lost souls, Sondheim composes "Another National Anthem," the nightmarish underside of the American dream.

The musical comes into sharp focus as we are transported to the Texas School Book Depository, November 22, 1963, where Lee Harvey Oswald, lonely and distraught, prepares to take his own life. That is, until Booth and the other assassins arrive and attempt to transform him into their avenging angel. Oswald, they believe, is their savior. He can justify their actions and secure for them all a place in history. Kennedy's assassination will be a watershed event--a crucial test against which all other acts of political violence will be measured. They feel this final act, if successful, will somehow legitimize their senseless lives. As the play builds to a climax, the assassins chant:

We admire you...
We're your family...
You are the future...
We're depending on you...
Make us proud...
All you have to do is squeeze your little finger.
Squeeze your little finger...
You can change the wor--
(Oswald Fires.)

Assassins premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on December 18, 1990 with a cast that included Victor Garber (Booth), Terrence Mann (Czolgosz), Jonathan Hadary (Guiteau), Lee Wilkof (Byck), Annie Golden (Fromm), Debra Monk (Moore), Patrick Cassidy (Balladeer), Greg Germann (Hinckley), and Jace Alexander (Oswald). The play opened to a sold-out run of 73 performances, but in spite of Sondheim's reputation, the musical did not transfer to a larger house. The United States was on the verge of the Persian-Gulf War, and the country was in a state of patriotic fervor. Audiences were not ready for the message Sondheim and Weidman were delivering. In fact, it was not until the passions of war cooled and the soundtrack was realeased on compact disc that Assassins truly began to be receive the critical acclaim that it deserves.

Cast Albums  |  Sheet Music  |  The Script


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Related Sites

American Theatre Index

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Pacific Overtures

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