I was in the process of outlining this story the other day when I got the news: Stephen Sondheim had passed away at the age of 91.
The Times headline said it all, Stephen Sondheim, Titan of the American Musical, Is Dead at 91: He was the theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century and the driving force behind some of Broadway’s most beloved and celebrated shows.
He was to me, as he was to many devotees of musical theater, an idol – an absolute one of a kind.
But why was I writing a story about a Sondheim show to begin with? Perhaps some background will help.
The subject matter of many of Sondheim’s shows are, in a word, curious. Some of the more unusual ones include:
- A Roman slave who wants to gain freedom by helping his slave owner get the girl he wants. (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
- A mayoress saves a bankrupt town by whistling. (Anyone Can Whistle)
- A musical set in Sweden based on an Ingmar Bergman film, with all the songs in 3/4 time to match the time signature of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, from which the show’s title derives. (A Little Night Music)
- An infamous demon barber of Fleet Street murders enemies who grace his chair, providing the remains to his accomplice/love interest for her to make “the best meat pies in London.” (Sweeney Todd)
- A fictionalized account of the real-life French post-impressionist pointillist, Georges Seurat, who paints to create a life that he wishes he could live in. (Sunday in the Park with George)
- A show that mixes fairytale classics including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood into one incredible performance that includes a lyric, sung by the Wolf to Red Riding Hood in the song “Hello Little Girl,” that no one could ever forget: There’s no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal. (Into the Woods)
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve left the best, of at least most bizarre subject for a musical, out. And that’s because it’s really the subject of this essay, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Assassins debuted off-Broadway in 1990 to mixed reviews and ran for only 73 performances. In the 2004 revival, which I saw and was mesmerized by, it won five Tony Awards. What a difference 14 years make; clearly, time changes everything.
But it was the current revival, again off-Broadway, that got me thinking about this show, one which doesn’t glorify the nine assassins/would be assassins of American presidents, but certainly provides some insights into their motivations.
The cast of characters:
American Presidents Assassination Attempts
|John Wilkes Booth – Abraham Lincoln||Giuseppe Zangara – Franklin Delano Roosevelt|
|Charles Guiteau – James Garfield||Samuel Byck – Richard Nixon|
|Leon Czolgosz – William McKinley||Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme – Gerald Ford|
|Lee Harvey Oswald – John F. Kennedy||Sara Jane Moore – Gerald Ford|
|John Hinckley, Jr. – Ronald Reagan|
But why the headline? Why “would be assassins” now? What does ‘now’ have to do with it?
Valerie Lynn Schrader, an associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State, examined the themes of Sondheim’s Assassins. In her analysis, she found that there are strong commonalities to these presidential assassins. Her conclusions led me to the idea that the motivations of these nine men and women seem strikingly similar to the would be assassins on the far right today.
- Sacrificing for the Greater Good / Fighting Against Political Injustice
- Desiring Attention
- Idealism and Optimism
- Pain, Desperation, and Disillusionment
Think about those motivations. Now think about the motivations of the January 6 insurrectionists seeking out Pence and Pelosi with their nooses. And the motivations, statements and social media posts of some of our far-right elected officials in Congress including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gossar, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and others. While these people haven’t literally “pulled the trigger,” they sure have talked about it. Is the actual trigger pull next? Chilling!
If you can…and I strongly urge that you do…seek out a performance of Sondheim’s Assassins. And when you watch and listen, think about this: written over 30 years ago, Assassins is something of a metaphor for our current troubled world.