“Assassins” then, would be assassins now

Commentary

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, RapunzelJack 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.

From left: Brandon Uranowitz as Leon Czolgosz, Judy Kuhn as Sara Jane Moore and Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth in “Assassins” at the Classic Stage Company.

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

                   Successful Unsuccessful
John Wilkes Booth – Abraham Lincoln Giuseppe Zangara ­– Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Charles Guiteau ­– James GarfieldSamuel Byck – Richard Nixon
Leon Czolgosz – William McKinleyLynette “Squeaky” Fromme – Gerald Ford
Lee Harvey Oswald – John F. KennedySara 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.

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy. Besides writing Around the Block, Ted is also a guest columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

7 thoughts on ““Assassins” then, would be assassins now

  1. What motivated the assassins of Julius Caesar, and the Grand Duke Ferdinand? Assassins have been around for a helluva long time. You cannot just look at American (would-be) assassins to try to understand what motivates them. That is just so wrong. (Not dissing Sondheim in any way, he did his job taking a look at assassins. But dissing anyone who thinks they can ignore all non-Ametican (would-be) assassins when trying to study them!)

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    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Of course, assassinations have been around as long as there’s been history. The two you mentioned are among the most famous. Caesar’s assassination (thanks in no small part to Shakespeare) was the part of a coup; Archduke Ferdinand’s was in protest of Hapsburg rule of Serbia. I focused on American presidential assassins because the taking off point of my story was Sondheim’s show. It was not intended to be a survey of assassins or assassinations throughout history. But as I thought about your comments and reflected on the two you mentioned, and others that came to mind… Hitler (Operation Valkyrie); Gandhi and his descendants; Japanese Prime Minister Inukai (1932); the motivations behind virtually all of them seem to coincide with Schrader categories.

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      1. Thanks for at least thinking about it. Being non-American, myself and others like me see how Americans mostly focus on America, as if nothing that happens anywhere else means a damn thing.

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      2. I appreciate your sentiments. I am an American but perhaps a little different than the average “Joe.” I traveled all over the world for business, lived in Tokyo for four years, going back every year or so, pre-Covid, and, through that travel, began to understand the perspectives of non-Americans, many of whom, after all those years, I can still count as friends.

        There are Americans, however, who subscribe to Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” metaphor…and also another long-held belief by some, “American Exceptionalism.” In many respects, America might be considered “exceptional,” but that exceptionalism is both good and bad. And America’s flaws are many and very, very deep.

        If you haven’t, you might want to read a few of my Around the Block columns I wrote specifically on the subject of “American Exceptionalism.” As I was flipping through my archives, I came across many more on the subject of America, but this should suffice for now.

        Sorry to inundate you and no obligation to read, but I thought you’d better understand my perspective with some of these.

        One last thing. You said you were a non-American. If you don’t mind saying, where are you from and where do you live? Again, no obligation.

        “American Exceptionalism is over. Was it really ever a thing?” (https://around-the-block.com/2021/10/01/american-exceptionalism-is-over-was-it-really-ever-a-thing/);

        “Is it ‘American Exceptionalism’ or ‘American Except-tionalism'” (https://around-the-block.com/2020/06/28/american-exceptionalism-in-action/)

        “American Exceptionalism – Part 2” (https://around-the-block.com/2020/06/29/american-exceptionalism-part-2/)

        “American Exceptionalism in action!” (https://around-the-block.com/2020/06/28/american-exceptionalism-in-action/)

        “We Live in the Worst Country in the World!” (https://around-the-block.com/2020/04/09/we-live-in-the-worst-country-in-the-world/)

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      3. Presently High Level, Alberta, Canada. If you look on a map look way up near the top of the province. I am in the boonies of the boonies. Presently very busy editting and proofreading a manuscript I am self-publishing. Once that is finished I will try to take a look, if I remember. My brain is in the process of forgetting the now, and clearly remembering the past. No fun. Don’t ever get there, lol.

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      4. I just read your post about ‘The Worst Country In The Wotld’ and before I could comment your site jumped to other posts (not sure how or why) and I could not comment there. Yup, pretty much all truth. But you are only seeing it from a rebellious American viewpoint. The reasons we non-Americans think you live in the worst country in the world is a lot worse. I will try one of the “Exceptionalusm’ posts listed above, and see how it does… Hopefully I will be able to comment right there.

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