background and analysis by Scott Miller

"What turns out to be most consistent of all about American assassins is the structure of the act, so consistent in fact that we may begin to think of it as a theatrical convention. There is the ordinary man or woman with a grievance. There is the target representing ultimate American power, whatever the actual stature of a particular President. There is the locale, a public place such as a theater, train station, hotel, city street, moving vehicle, exposition, and on occasion the area near the White House and the gallery and floor of the House of Representatives. And there is a weapon – never a knife (as in many Japanese assassinations, for instance) or a hand grenade (as in some Middle Eastern assassinations) but always a gun, either pistol or rifle." 

 – Robert Jay Lifton, The New York Times

Why are we so fascinated by American political assassination? Why are so many people convinced that Kennedy’s assassination was a conspiracy? Why are there so many books about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth? Part of the answer is the never ending human quest to understand ourselves and the world around us. Can we learn about our own demons by studying these assassins? Part of it is that we all agree on certain things in civilized society, primarily that we won’t kill each other. When that compact is broken, particularly in such a high profile way, it makes us wonder which compact will be broken next? Can we still rely on the other things we’ve agreed to? Or is there a darker fascination at work here, a powerfully unique American obsession with power and violence, which usually manifests itself harmlessly enough in uber-violent video games and Rovian politics, but sometimes manifests itself in the doctrine of "preemptive war"?

But perhaps the biggest part of the fascination with political assassination is the idea that such a tiny moment, such a small, individual act can literally change the world in an instant. How can that be possible? And if it is possible, can we believe in the sureness of anything? Though these nine assassins are the show’s protagonists in a structural sense – and perhaps Oswald and Czolgosz are the lead protagonists since they change and learn more than the others – still, in a moralistic sense, these assassins are the villains and the audience, the American people, are the real protagonists of this story. So what does that mean for a piece of theatre when the villains are the heroes and the heroes aren’t on stage for most of the show? What does it mean for America?

When the show was revived on Broadway in 2004, former critic and now New York Times political commentator Frank Rich wrote about the evolving relevance of this complex show:

Against this grim backdrop [of the war in Iraq], exacerbated further by a permanent war on terrorism that does not resemble the first slamdunk war in Iraq, Assassins hits much closer to home. In particular, we're more likely to notice two of the assassins who made scant impressions in 1991, even though they had the same lines they do now.

One is Samuel Byck, who, in 1974, became the first person to try to hijack a commercial airliner after weapon detectors had been mandated at American airports 13 months earlier. Byck's assassination plot, thwarted after he had killed two others and shot himself, was to "'drop a 747 on the White House and incinerate Dick Nixon."' In 1991, Byck, a deluded ranter dressed up in a Santa suit (as was his wont), seemed like a joke. His re-emergence onstage in 2004 seems yet another rebuke to our lax national security during the months and years before 9/11. At the very least, Byck makes you wonder yet again how the current national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, could claim until recently that the very idea of anyone hijacking a commercial plane to use it as a weapon was unthinkable before al Qaeda made a go of it.

The other assassin who made little impact in the first production of Assassins is Charles Guiteau, who shot James Garfield in a Washington train station in 1881. His show-stopping Sondheim song, delivered with evangelical glee as he mounts a tower of steps to the gallows, is based on a poem, "I Am Going to the Lordy," that the real Guiteau wrote and recited on the day of his execution. Guiteau was a religious zealot who, in the words of The Times 123 years ago, was "a monomaniac on the second advent of Jesus Christ." He once tried to start a newspaper in Hoboken, N.J., called The Daily Theocrat and viewed his suicide mission against an American president as God's will. "I was just acting for Someone up there," he sings as we watch him march literally and figuratively up to heaven.

Guiteau is so suffused with joy over both his murder of Garfield and his own imminent extinction that you find yourself wondering if he is expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward. And he is not the only religious fanatic among the assassins. Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, one of two would-be killers of Gerald Ford, was a disciple following the dictates of Charlie Manson, whom she deemed to be the son of God.

Don’t Say It with Music.

But back in 1991, when Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical masterwork opened, many people were outraged by the idea of a musical about presidential assassination. Sondheim was shocked by this reaction. Certainly, he argued, if Assassins was a non-musical play, no one would think twice about it. Simply because it’s a musical, some people thought the show would trivialize its subject. But contrary to what those people believed, an art form can’t be trivial in and of itself, only the ways in which that art form is put to use. The American musical theatre has proven time and again that serious subjects and stories can be treated as powerfully with music as without, in many cases, more powerfully since the language of music conveys emotion more deeply and more powerfully than words alone ever can.

Sondheim said in a New York Times preview article, "There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals. I remember that there was a letter of protest when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opened that said, ‘How dare they write a musical about miscegenation?’ South Pacific hardly seems like a shocker today, but it was in 1949. There were people who were horrified that such a serious and upsetting subject as interracial marriage should be dealt with by the most popular musical writers of the day."

John Weidman said in one interview, "It was a real authors’ work and started with no preconceptions about what we wanted to write or really what we were going to write about except in the most general sense. . . We spent a couple of months talking, and as we talked, the shape and the form and the content of what we wanted to write about emerged. It was enormously satisfying because we didn’t design a topic sentence first and then try to fit the material in underneath, we just let it go. I felt very free to write whatever I wanted, and I was drawing on a lot of different styles in which I had written in the past because that seemed to be what the material required."

Sondheim and Weidman took an unconventional – and controversial – approach to their subject, seeing the history of assassination in our country as a national tradition, savage though it may be. Instead of portraying the assassins as aberrations on the fringe of society, Sondheim and Weidman saw them as victims of our society’s high expectations and false promises, and disciples of a different American dream, another national anthem. Unlike the Sondheim musicals written with James Lapine, Assassins was a visceral, in-your-face, aggressive piece of theatre, both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. From the moment the audience heard "Hail to the Chief" in 3/4 time – the wrong meter – they knew this would be something wholly original. This show was not about the comfortable, relatively safe America we’re used to; this show revealed an America in which we may often lose our way. Frighteningly, this was also the real America, a country won with guns, a culture suffused with guns, a country with violence in its very DNA, seemingly cursed by its own Original Sin: the systematic slaughter of the Native Americans.

Weidman said in the New York Times preview:

They really are fascinating. Not just because of the dramatic and horrifying way in which they put punctuation marks at the end of their own lives and the lives of others, but because it turned out that the journey they had followed on the way to that moment was in each case extraordinary. When you put them together and looked at them as a group, they formed a kind of mosaic that had meaning and suggested that we really had something to write about. One of the things we found out as we looked at them is that we were not writing about shooting at the President of the United States. What’s provocative and upsetting and disturbing is the lives they led up to that point and what those lives reveal. So in a sense the appalling and horrifying acts with which they ended their journeys were like tickets of admission into the show, rather than what the show was about.

What’s really to blame for these assassinations, Assassins argues, is the lie of The American Dream. Like the rest of us, these assassins were all have all been told that if you work hard enough, you can have The American Dream. But that’s just not true for many Americans. These assassins have mistaken one of the fundamental principles of our founding: the Declaration of Independence promises us all "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but only the pursuit of it, not the actual happiness itself. The assassins have missed that distinction, as they keep telling us in the show that "everybody’s got the right to be happy." When that happiness is not forthcoming as they believe it has been promised, they feel abandoned, disenfranchised, left out. And they no longer feel bound to the compacts of civilized society. So they find a gun.

Lifton wrote, "The politics of assassins tend to be perverse expressions of American populism, drawn from the right, the left, or from both, but always derived from our social and political confusions. The choice of lethal violence via the gun has not only profound roots in our frontier history but the strongest emotional reverberations in contemporary American society . . . The laws that permit our society to be saturated with guns can be seen as a national refusal of political and moral growth – a constitutional literalism (‘the right to bear arms’) so anachronistic as to qualify as a form of political fundamentalism."

What makes Assassins work and what makes it so subversive is that it never judges these men and women. The audience wants the authors to condemn these people, to take a position on these unspeakable acts, to leave us feeling safe in the knowledge that these assassins are freaks, social anomalies, that they are nothing like us, that they’re easily identifiable, and that indeed we are safe. But Sondheim and Weidman refuse. As with most Sondheim shows, Assassins asks lots of questions and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Some of these assassins were genuinely crazy – certainly Charles Guiteau and John Hinckley, and arguably Sara Jane Moore – but many of them were not, many of them weren’t all that different from us, damaged, neurotic, lonely; and Sondheim and Weidman are brave enough (and mischievous enough) to acknowledge that.

Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, "If Zangara, a Sweeney Todd-like avenger of the proletariat, and the fanatical Manson acolyte [Squeaky Fromme] are the most touching figures, that may be because, as realized in the writing, their characters most demonically demonstrate Mr. Sondheim’s conviction that there is a shadow America, a poisoned, have-not America, that must be recognized by the prosperous majority if the violence in our history is to be understood and overcome."

Rich went on: "This is not a message that audiences necessarily want to hear at any time, and during the relatively jingoistic time of war in which this [2004] production happens to find itself, some may regard such sentiments as incendiary. But Mr. Sondheim has real guts. He isn’t ashamed to identify with his assassins to the extreme point where he will wave a gun in a crowded theater, artistically speaking, if that’s what is needed to hit the target of American complacency."

Sondheim and Weidman did their homework on this show and even the tiniest details come from the real lives of these people. From Goldman’s influence on Czolgosz to Guiteau’s perpetually futile flirtations to Booth’s incredible charm, the musical portrays these characters exactly as they were. In writing "The Ballad of Booth," Sondheim took a big risk by giving Booth passionate, deeply felt words of patriotism, set to stirring, emotional music. Who else in modern theatre would let John Wilkes Booth paint himself as a patriot? But that’s how Booth saw himself, and just as Sondheim and Weidman did throughout the show, they let Booth paint his own picture, and that’s part of what makes Assassins so unique and so unsettling.

And so important.

Perversely, the assassins end the show in triumph. In "Another National Anthem" and the finale, the assassins literally try to recruit the audience to join their ranks. The (not really) objective Balladeer is banished from the stage before the show is over, allowing the assassins to take control over their own storytelling, to finally find the power in their collective voice, and in essence, to win. It’s confrontational and it’s subversive. And it makes an audience excited – well, excited and scared.

The Country Is Not What It Was

Assassins opened in December 1990 off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, right in the middle of the first Gulf War, with America in a state of hyped patriotism and in no mood for a show like this. The book and score of Assassins were among the most interesting in all of musical theatre. The show was a kind of neo-vaudevillian collection of both songs and dialogue scenes that were connected thematically, though they did not tell a conventional linear story. Like the Sondheim musicals Company and Follies, this was a character study, and before the show was over, audiences realized that the assassins weren’t the only characters being examined; the show was also looking at the character of our country, in which a too-hyped American Dream and easy access to guns have provided a handful of neurotics with both the motive and means to kill a president. It is also a country in which we want everything explained in ten-second sound bites. The Balladeer wants a neat and simple motive for John Wilkes Booth’s act of violence – bad reviews, sibling rivalry – but from the very beginning, Assassins declares that there are no easy answers. Booth believed in his cause, believed that the country he loved so deeply was being torn apart, believed that Lincoln was the cause. Assassins took Booth, Czolgosz and the others seriously, rather than dismissing them as loonies (with one or two exceptions), and in the process gave us a rare glimpse inside history that offered real insight instead of just smug superiority.

As usual, Sondheim’s score held as much drama and subtext as the script. His music grounded the scenes in each time period. With two exceptions, the entire score was written in traditional American song forms appropriate to each assassin’s period. For Sondheim, those forms included not only folksongs and cakewalks but also John Philip Sousa marches, barbershop quartets, show tunes, even 1970s pop ballads.

Unfortunately, much of the complexity and nuance was lost in the original production at Playwrights Horizons under the heavy-handed direction of Jerry Zaks, who would soon triumph with a high-energy revival of Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Though he was a strong director, Zaks was more wrong for this project than just about any other director working in New York. A master of musical comedy with a delightful sense of whimsy and Cohan-esque pacing, he was ill equipped to shepherd this dark, moody concept musical. As a result of this – and perhaps also the Gulf War – Assassins didn’t make it to Broadway.

Critical reception was tepid, but there was some appreciation of Weidman and Sondheim’s intentions. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times in 1991, "The effect of this recurrent chorus line, a striking image in a diffuse evening, is totally disorienting, as if someone had removed a huge boulder from the picturesque landscape of American history to expose to light all the mutant creatures that had been hiding in the dankness underneath. In Assassins, a daring work even by his lights, Mr. Sondheim and his collaborator, the writer John Weidman, say the unthinkable, though they sometimes do so in a deceptively peppy musical-comedy tone. Without exactly asking that the audience sympathize with some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, this show insists on reclaiming them as products, however defective, of the same values and traditions as the men they tried to murder."

It was later produced in London with a new song, "Something Just Broke" (which many Sondheim fans rejected as not organic to the rest of the show). Assassins was to have been revived on Broadway in the fall of 2001 by the Roundabout Theatre Company, but then came the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the nervous producers put the production on permanent hold. Some fans believed the attacks made a production of Assassins even more important than it had been before, that America needed to understand violence like this. The show finally opened on Broadway in 2004, to high praise and five Tony Awards, but the show was tinkered with and the production team made some unnecessary mistakes.

About the revival, Rich wrote, "The more timely associations evoked by Assassins in 2004 are not so blithely cordoned off as satire. As Mr. Weidman pointed out in an interview, the assassins in his script, typified by Guiteau and Byck, are often like the young Arab hijackers of 9/11 in their ability to twist their rancid feelings of impotence and humiliation into a ‘pseudo-political cause’ that they think justifies their heinous acts. Presidential assassins and al Qaeda often choose their targets similarly as well: occupants of the White House, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are attacked not so much because of who they are but because they embody American power, for which their assailants have a pathological hatred."

As blasphemous as it may be to criticize Lincoln today, to see the truth in Booth’s accusations, it may be even more so to point out the parallels to today’s American politics. But doing so gives us profound insights into that time and ours. When Booth cries out "Sic semper tyrannis!" (Thus always to tyrants!), we have to acknowledge that Lincoln was in certain ways behaving like a tyrant – and that tyranny is never far away…

Lincoln greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency, further than any President before him had done. Of course, the same is true today of George W. Bush. By 1863, Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus (the right of a prisoner to legally challenge his arrest in court) for Southern sympathizers and draft dodgers; exactly as Bush has done for "suspected terrorists" today. Lincoln had an estimated 30,000 political prisoners being held without charge or trial during the Civil War; today we don’t know how many American citizens and others are being similarly held by Bush. Lincoln had border state legislators arrested and imprisoned so that they could not vote for secession. He shut down opposition newspapers. He had personal mail illegally searched. And he entered a military conflict without a vote of Congress.

To many in both the North and South, Lincoln was the textbook definition of a tyrant, no better than King George III, committing exactly the crimes the Declaration of Independence condemns: taxation without representation; martial law; deprivation of habeas corpus and trial by jury; the waging of an "unfair" war; and the abolition of self-rule, the primary principle of democracy. In hindsight, we can see all those acts in the service of freeing the slaves (today, it’s in the service of "protecting the homeland"), but slavery was a side issue for Lincoln; his primary agenda was protecting the economic and geographic power of the country. The South represented not just important markets for the Northern businessmen but also a sizable portion of the nation’s agriculture, including cash crops like cotton and tobacco. To many in the South, their only option was to follow the Declaration, believing as it said that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

We can only learn from history if we can see it clearly. And Assassins is here to help.

Putting It Together

Assassins includes characters who represent concepts. The Proprietor represents our country, run amok with violence, dissent, the refusal to understand complicated issues, and the adulation of wackos. We live in a country where the public applauds criminals whose crimes are strange enough to get them on the talk shows, where fame is happily bestowed on people who commit bizarre, violent acts against their spouses or stack up dead bodies in their cellar. The Proprietor is the personification of this upside-down world of ours, where we give disturbed individuals guns while we make sure they can’t achieve the rewards we’ve taught them to expect. They learn that committing a crime in a very public way is an easy path to fame and fortune. In the opening scene of Assassins, the Proprietor preys on each character’s individual insecurities, then offers them the one sure way to realize the American Dream – killing the president.

The Proprietor is a literal embodiment of the insanity of our modern world, a full blown – yet terribly seductive – psychopath. And as with many psychopaths, you can’t see it in him. Imagine all the rage, ambition, want, and resourcefulness of America all stuffed into one person. Frightening though he may be, the assassins find his messages enticing and his promises impossible to ignore.

The Balladeer is the other conceptual character. He represents the American public and the American storytelling tradition, and so is portrayed as a folk singer, the only form of storytelling that has lasted through all the time periods represented in the show. From the founding of our country to the present, folk singers have passed on our stories. Other forms of storytelling have emerged as well, books, radio, movies, TV, video games, etc., but the folk singer endures. The key to the Balladeer lies in the fact that as stories are passed down from generation to generation, as they are turned into songs, plays, and other storytelling forms, they are, of necessity, simplified. Particularly in America, they are also infused with optimism and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. As the personification of these stories, the Balladeer embodies an intentionally shallow, over-simplified view of history. His winning smile, easy going manner, and theme park enthusiasm provide an important contrast to the darkness and driving intensity of the assassins, particularly in "The Ballad of Booth" and "Another National Anthem." He represents everything that the assassins hate about our country and in "Another National Anthem," they must silence him.

To further strengthen the Balladeer’s role, one production set him out in the audience during the opening number; he then began "The Ballad of Booth" from out in the house, reinforcing the idea that he represents the American people. He is us. He has our many prejudices and preconceptions about America and about the assassins; he is very clearly not an objective narrator.

Weidman’s book jumps madly back and forth through time, mixing people and events from different eras. The fact that many of these assassins were undoubtedly inspired by the stories of those who had killed presidents before them is dramatized by allowing the assassins themselves to stand in for those stories. John Wilkes Booth actually suggests to Zangara in 1933 and Oswald in 1963 that they kill the president. John Hinckley asks Lee Harvey Oswald for his autograph. The show’s creators theorize that it was not only anger and frustration that led to these killings, but also the knowledge that it had been done before. In the climactic Texas Book Depository scene, all the assassins past and future assemble to convince Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Weidman and Sondheim aren’t suggesting these ghosts actually appeared in Dallas in 1963; it is Oswald’s knowledge of them, their stories, and their acts, his belief that he is carrying on their tradition, that they would approve, that motivates him. They live in him, and as a part of him, they are his accomplices.

Oswald is dead inside. He’s broken. His whole life has been a long series of disappointments. He’s been rejected by everyone in his life, including the Mexican and Russian embassies! Just imagine how vulnerable he would be to Booth’s seduction – the seduction of history – and to the idea of belonging to something at long last.

As usual, Sondheim’s score holds as much drama and subtext as the book. His period music grounds us in each time period. With one exception, the entire score is written in styles appropriate to each assassin’s time, and all in traditional American song forms. For Sondheim, those forms include not only folk songs and cakewalks, but also John Philip Sousa marches, barbershop quartets, show tunes, even 1970’s pop ballads. The exception to this is "Another National Anthem," the one song in which the overall dramatic situation of the show actually changes. Appropriately, this is the one song that is not a period piece and not a traditional American song form; it is pure Sondheim, full of rich dissonance and interesting melody. It is in "Another National Anthem" that the assassins first reject the Balladeer’s American Dream and realize that there is safety – and power – in numbers.

Sondheim also combines song forms in some cases to contrast characters and situations. In "How I Saved Roosevelt," the bystanders who claim to have saved the president sing to the tunes of John Philip Sousa marches; yet in the same song, the Italian immigrant Zangara sitting in the electric chair sings an Italian tarantella. The switch back and forth between the marches and the tarantella, both in 6/8 meter, differentiates the characters’ backgrounds even as the lyric shows they have a common aim. As the song climaxes, Zangara’s music slowly becomes a Sousa march as well, and for the first time, he sings at the same time as the bystanders, underlining their common goal – celebrity.

The Case for Booth

The power of Assassins – like 1776 and other historical dramas – is its ability to make fully drawn human beings out of the one-dimensional cardboard figures of history books. In Assassins, John Wilkes Booth may be somewhat unbalanced thinking assassination will solve America’s troubles, but he honestly believes he is a patriot. He didn’t kill Lincoln for fame or glory; he killed him to save the country. Looking back, we may quarrel with Booth’s assessment of the state of the union, but it’s important to remember that Lincoln was a widely disliked president; he was not "the pride and joy... of all the U.S.A.," as the Balladeer sings. Booth’s indictments against him are true. Lincoln did throw political dissenters into prison without charge or trial. His decision to abolish slavery was more economic than moralistic. Booth loved his country deeply and saw quite accurately that it was on its deathbed. The issue of slavery is beside the point here. Though we can see in retrospect that slavery was unconscionable, it’s easy to see how it was condoned by society and by people like Booth; Thomas Jefferson and other very moral men owned slaves. From our modern vantage point, we can call Booth a racist, but at the time, his view of slavery was not outside society’s norm. All he could see was that Lincoln was effectively destroying the economy of the South.

The section of "The Ballad of Booth" that begins with "How the country is not what it was..." is profoundly moving. This is not a madman talking; this is a man who loves the U.S.A. and can’t bear to see it divided and its citizens murdered in a bloody war. Many historians have commented that had Booth killed Lincoln two years earlier, he might’ve been hailed as a hero instead. Are Booth’s concerns that different from those voiced by commentators today? Americans across our nation often feel that the president or other politicians are destroying our way of life. Booth wasn’t that different from the protesters during the Vietnam war. Certainly we can’t sanction his method of righting the perceived wrongs – cold-blooded murder – but we also can’t ignore the despair he must’ve felt over the destruction of his beloved country, a destruction that was very real. "The Ballad of Booth" can be a deeply moving, impassioned plea for understanding by a man who honestly believed he was doing what had to be done. Saddest of all in Booth’s hope that the history (i.e., the Balladeer) will pass on the truth; it won’t. Booth’s motivations, passions, and beliefs will be ignored or distorted.

What most people don’t know – what History (personified here by the Balladeer) has left out and distorted – is that John Wilkes Booth was at the top of his fame and wealthy beyond his dreams when he decided to give it all up to kill Lincoln. He’s being sincere when he says, "I have given up my life for this one act." And what he gave up was considerable – he was making about $20,000 a year, an incredible sum at that time. More than that, he was universally adored. He had tons of friends. He was friendly to both the rich ladies who craved his company and to the stable boys. He often gave money to kids on the street. When he dined out with friends, he usually picked up the bill. People thought of him as kind, charming, generous, and a genuinely good man. He absolutely did not kill Lincoln over bad reviews (he was getting stellar reviews) or a failing career (he was becoming an even bigger national star than his older brother) or the need for attention (he was always in the papers and was a big league celebrity wherever he went).

Booth’s motives were political and born out of a genuine and desperate love of his country. Yes, he was a racist, but then again, so were many of the greatest men in history – it’s naïve to condemn him for that any more than we would condemn Jefferson or Washington for it. That’s not say it’s excusable, but it is easy to understand. His racism had nothing to do with his hatred of Lincoln. He hated Lincoln for destroying his country, for killing thousands of American boys, and for trampling on the Constitution, taking powers from Congress that were not his to take. We now know that Abraham Lincoln desecrated in some ways the very foundation of our American government. He ignored – some would say overthrew – the careful construction of the three branches of government designed to hold each other in check, the structure our Founding Fathers so carefully created to avoid tyranny and corruption. He declared war without the approval of Congress. He threw innocent people into jail in both the North and the South without charges and without trials. And as a result, many people hated him, in both the North and the South. They believed he was destroying our country. So it wasn’t all that unreasonable for Booth to think he’d be hailed as a hero for killing Lincoln. Michael Phillips, producer of the political assassination film Taxi Driver, says, "The difference between a hero and a monster is such a fine line."

In "The Ballad of Booth" we can see Booth’s confusion and utter despair over the way the country turned its back on him (at least in his perception), as well as his great sorrow over the destruction of a country he loved with all his heart. He was misguided and he was a murderer – there’s no ignoring that fact – but he was also in many ways, very patriotic.

The 2006 film Death of a President offers up a surprising contemporary parallel to both Lincoln and Kennedy, as a faux documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush. The film shows us Bush as a terribly unpopular president (Lincoln), presiding over a divided nation (Lincoln), throwing people into prison without due process (Lincoln), and killed by a sniper in a nearby building (Kennedy).

Anatomy of an Assassin

Like Booth, Leon Czolgosz had political motivation. The progress of Czolgosz from exploited worker to assassin is one of the fullest and most interesting sequences in the show, an Anatomy of an Assassin. We first see him in the barroom with John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, and other assassins. His monologue about the insufferable working conditions in the factory where he works paints a picture of a man filled with rage who doesn’t know what to do about it. Two scenes later, he meets Emma Goldman. He tells her that if he could, he would strike down the ruling class. She tells him he can and leaves him with a pamphlet encouraging the workers to rise up against their oppressors. He realizes that he must do something.

The next scene is a barbershop quartet called, "The Gun Song." In it, Czolgosz expresses his contempt for his gun and the many workers who have been exploited through its manufacture. Here, the gun becomes explicitly a "product," the output of the capitalist system that Czolgosz believes has oppressed him and many others. There is a poetic justice in that same product becoming the means by which Czolgosz lashes back at the capitalists through the assassination of the business-friendly McKinley. Booth enters the song and tells him that "all you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world." By the end of the song, Czolgosz realizes how he can make a difference in the world. The song ends with a list of all the men who’ve died for the gun – men in the mines, the steel mills, in the manufacturing plants. He looks at the gun as he makes up his mind and sings, "A gun claims many men before it’s done... just one more" – the president.

The scene changes to the 1901 Pan American Exposition and "The Ballad of Czolgosz," where Czolgosz walks up to President McKinley and shoots him. This three-scene sequence forms the centerpiece of the show, and the most complete picture of how a man can go from desperation to rage to the act of killing the president. Frighteningly, we understand Czolgosz and some of us may even agree with his politics. His lyric at the end of "The Gun Song" makes an important point – that poverty is as insidious a killer as violence – that is as true today as in 1901. Not many of us, though, are prepared to accept his actions. How uncomfortable it must make the audience to suddenly realize that, as with Booth, they understand why he did it. We’re not supposed to understand such things. We’re supposed to condemn them and try not to think about it too much, but Assassins doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.

Sam Byck

Of all the assassins, Sam Byck most represents the contemporary, average, working class American. He is for some audience members the assassin easiest to identify with. He’s not acting against social injustice. He doesn’t have the answers, but he knows the path America is on isn’t the right one. He knows that politicians lie to us, that it’s impossible to really understand all the issues even if you try. All he wants is for the people with power and influence to be straight with us. He tries to enlist the aid of famous people – people who would be listened to more than Byck would – but to Leonard Bernstein and Jonas Salk, he sounds crazy. Listen closely and you’ll see that Byck’s criticisms aren’t crazy, despite the fact that his solution may be.

Byck’s two monologues establish several important ideas. In the first monologue, Byck tells us that much in America is screwed up (which we know is true), and though he doesn’t have the answers, he knows that honesty and genuine effort will get us farther than politics as usual. We see that he’s tried to enlist the aid of celebrities to get the message out, but to an avail. In the second monologue, we find out more about his view on politics and more about Byck. As Byck sees it, all the politicians are telling us everyone else is lying and that only they are telling us the truth. It’s clear, though, that none of the politicians are telling the truth. Byck astutely points out that many of the pertinent issues are too complex for the average citizen to understand – that’s why we elect representatives to figure them out and come up with plans of action. Yet when our representatives disagree on how best to solve problems, they garner our support by attacking their opponents rather than by helping us to understand the issues. Like the fast food industry and other consumer business to which Byck refers, politics has become a matter of marketing and publicity, letting substance fall away. Byck believes that politicians – most notably the president – have "sinned" against the American people and must be punished. In a very basic sense, this is a view held by several of the assassins we’ve seen. No one else will take any action, so Byck sees himself as America’s last chance. He’ll kill Nixon, wiping the political slate clean so our country can start over.

The second monologue also tells us a great deal about Byck’s psychology. He knows there are areas in life in which we must trust others to make decisions and act on our behalf. He’s looking for someone to trust in regard to the governance of our country, but can’t find anyone. But the trust issue goes further back than that. In the latter part of the monologue, Byck compares the American public to children, who need protection and guidance. This leads to a sort-of flashback for him, which graphically shows us that he’s losing his mind. His obsession with his "mission" has taken its toll. Going back into his childhood, Byck’s father says he loves him but his mother doesn’t. His mother says she loves him but his father doesn’t. Issues of tremendous importance to this child – caring and protection, the same issues important to the American public – are confusing instead of reassuring, contradictory instead of clear. The state of American politics forces issues for Byck that he’s been grappling with all his life. He sees no answer other than assassination. Unlike many Americans who object to the state of politics, Byck cannot just stand by and watch the country he loves crumble. He has to take action. We can disapprove of his method, but he illustrates an important concept in Assassins. As an audience, we can sit comfortably in our theatre seats and condemn these assassins for killing; but these are Americans who care passionately about America and must take some action in its defense. Byck speaks for all the assassins, and in fact for the entire country when he asks who we should believe and what we can do. Like those who have gone before him, he sees only one possible course of action – killing the president.

O Say, Can You See..?

Sam Byck becomes the mouthpiece for the assassins, for their frustrations and their passions. Up to this point, the Balladeer is the voice of authority in the show, but he begins to lose that position to Byck. Looking back, we can see that the Balladeer saw this possibility as early as "The Ballad of Booth;" perhaps Booth was eloquent and passionate enough that the Balladeer felt compelled to discredit him early on by singing:

Listen to the stories.

Hear it in the songs.

Angry men

Don’t write the rules,

And guns don’t right the wrongs.

Hurts a while,

But soon the country’s

Back where it belongs,

And that’s the truth.

But it’s not the truth. The Balladeer himself has already said that Booth forever changed our country – "You left a legacy of butchery and treason we took eagerly..." We don’t want it to be true, but Booth very much changed the face of America by beginning a still active tradition of political assassination in our country. Like the press and the public, the Balladeer doesn’t want to assign any power to these assassins, but the truth is that, though guns clearly don’t right the wrongs, guns certainly can – and do – change the country. Oswald’s assassination of Kennedy created huge changes in American politics – and by extension, in American life – that we will never be able to know completely. No matter what the Balladeer may say or believe, these angry men and women have a very clear and profound impact on the lives of the rest of us.

In "Another National Anthem," the assassins onstage literally solicit the audience to become assassins. Led by Byck, they tell us that they’ve tried the traditional American Dream, the one proffered by the Balladeer, and it doesn’t work. They’ve found a better American Dream, another national anthem. They sell it to us, asking us to pass on their message, singing over and over, "Spread the word." They know that we (the audience) all have unrealized dreams just like they do; they know that we all want the same thing, and they know how to get it now. In a way, it becomes the most optimistic song in the show, precisely because the assassins have found the answer. But it also must be infused with great anger, carried to enough of an extreme to justify their acts. Byck compares the fairy tale we call the American Dream to Santa Claus; and we realize how meaningless the Balladeer’s empty optimism is to them. For these assassins, the American Dream really is as silly as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As the Balladeer spouts his homespun clichés about a country built on dreams, we see how little this means to this group of people consumed by despair, grief, rage, and feelings of abandonment. For most of us in the audience, it will be the first time we’ve looked at the American Dream in such a harsh light, and realized how irritating it must be to the disenfranchised members of our society who can never have what we tell them they should have.

But these people are newly empowered. They have taken over the Balladeer’s role – that of passing on stories – and they literally chase the Balladeer off the stage, silencing the only voice in the show still in favor of old-fashioned American values. They become a new voice of authority and they take control of the show as they realize that they have even greater power as a group than as individuals. They see the Balladeer’s and America’s lie – that the mailman, the delivery boy, even the usherette can have the American Dream if only they try hard enough. These assassins have listened to the lie for too long, and have seen it for what it is. They decide it’s time for them to be heard. The assassins have learned how to get their message across. The Balladeer tells them their acts have meant nothing, but it’s not true. They know that...

They may not want to hear it,

But they listen,

Once they think it’s gonna stop the game...

No, they may not understand

All the words,

All the same, they hear the music...

The ballpark is mainstream society; the game is the American Dream. Though the assassins can’t get into the ballpark, they can certainly interrupt the game. With their newfound confidence, they pick up on one of the Balladeer’s themes – that you have to keep on trying. Maybe they can’t have the prize they were promised, but there are other prizes to be had. For those who wanted fame, they got it. For those who wanted to effect political change, they at least called attention to their cause. For those who wanted to "connect," they have done just that. They have become a new voice of America; they say late in the song, "We’re the other national anthem..." (emphasis added). They realize that they really can effect change. They say, "There’s another national anthem and I think it just began..." Their anthem is playing now. It’s their turn.

Back to the Future

The assassins find when they come together that they have a commonality of purpose that makes them a "force of history" (in fact, only as a group are they significant enough historically to have had a musical written about them). It’s this knowledge and power – and the promise of belonging to a family – that helps them persuade Oswald to kill Kennedy. Oswald can achieve lasting notoriety, as evidenced by Hinckley’s intimate knowledge of Oswald’s life. All the sung lines leading up to Oswald’s gunshot make him feel important, significant, a man of consequence – "I envy you," "I admire you," "I respect you," "You are the future." Oswald will do what none of the others could – he will single-handedly raise presidential assassination to mythical proportions; Kennedy’s death will cause worldwide grieving like no one has ever seen before.

The Book Depository scene may be the most surreal scene in the show. Is it all happening in Oswald’s head? The whole show is surreal, but this scene is even more so. When Booth enters, he notices his watch isn’t working. Of course it isn’t – time is not right in this scene. We see in Assassins that Booth and Oswald live in all time periods – Booth visits other time periods and Oswald brings them all to him. But these two men are the ones we all know; maybe we’ve never heard of Sam Byck or Giuseppe Zangara, but everyone knows Booth and Oswald. The show has crossed time periods before this scene, but here all periods converge on one spot at one time – the moment before Oswald shoots Kennedy. Lee has literally brought them together, physically as well as spiritually. The mysterious way they appear and disappear, and their knowledge of other time periods, seem to indicate that they are really only voices in Oswald’s head, telling him all the things he wants to hear, that they envy him, admire him, respect him, that they want him to be a part of their "family," that they need him to form a link between past and future. Finally, after a lifetime of not belonging – to a family, to a group of friends, to either America or Russia – Lee has found people who need him. How could this pathetic soul possibly refuse them? He has purpose for the first time in his life.

At the end of the Oswald scene in the production I directed, the assassins did not exit after Oswald’s shot. They stood in a line, in chronological order, one empty space in the center. Only after Oswald shoots Kennedy and then crosses the stage to step into that space does the group become truly whole. Oswald connects past to future, creating a continuum, a perverse family tree of assassination. This is the show’s obligatory moment, the moment toward which all previous action leads, and from which all subsequent action follows.

Leave It to History to Tell

Robert Jay Lifton wrote in The New York Times in 1990, "More than assassins elsewhere, they become instant celebrities and in many cases prominent historical figures. Can one imagine a history of 19th-century America that did not pay attention to John Wilkes Booth? Or one of our 20th century that did not have something to say about Lee Harvey Oswald? We are fascinated by them both because we sense they are of us, and because they have done something extreme that sets them off from us. In them we see ordinary individuals who might be from our own or a nearby neighborhood doing the very extraordinary thing of killing our most powerful figure."

To the history books, the assassins are all ultimately failures – either they failed to kill the president or they were caught and killed themselves – but from the assassins’ point of view, they have succeeded by the show’s end. They have found the answers, they have found a group they can belong to, they have a message to pass on. And they have power. The greatest revelation for the audience is when they allow themselves to see the show from the assassins’ viewpoint instead of their own, to see the Balladeer as an antagonist who distorts and over-simplifies their passions (as the stories he personifies have done), and to recognize the tremendous force of history the assassins become. By not imposing our moral point of view on the assassins, by not condemning them, by allowing them to be triumphant, the show makes many audiences uncomfortable. They want a final, reassuring statement: The Assassins Are Bad.

But Assassins isn’t a show about good and bad; it’s about why. It’s about hearing the other side of the story, getting closer to these assassins than we normally would, standing in their world for ninety minutes. In the finale, the assassins offer us a truly seductive opportunity – to be a part of something greater than ourselves, to belong to a family, and, in a tip of the hat to other Sondheim musicals, the chance to connect, perhaps the greatest human desire of them all. When the assassins repeat the word connect, we feel the power of their newly acquired/regained self-respect, building each time the word is repeated, demanding respect from the audience – the country – as well.


Copyright 1994-2008. Some of this material appeared in an earlier form in Scott Miller’s first book, From Assassins to West Side Story (1996). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.