Yesterday, I received a shipment of CDs that I ordered from Amazon*. This shipment included Unsung Musicals: The Ultimate Collection, You Never Know (Cole Porter), The Rink (Kander/Ebb)… and Assassins (2004) Sondheim. I’m listening to Assassins right now.
One thing you can say for Sondheim: He doesn’t tackle easy material anymore. Consider some of his other musicals: Sweeny Todd (about a mad-man who kills people and has them baked into meat pies), or Into The Woods (about what happens after “happily ever after”, a/k/a “Be Careful What You Wish For”). They work.
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.
Just listening to the musical (not seeing it) is wierd. It definately gives the impression of the assassins as disturbed individuals. However, to hear them sing “Everybody has the right to their dreams” is just odd. Are there some dreams that people don’t have the right to? I would think so: I think ethics and morality place limits on things.
The other odd aspect of this musical is its eerie pre-sence: One of the assassins is Sam Byck, a used tire salesman who, in 1974, attempted to hijack a plane from BWI in order to fly it into the White House and assassinate Nixon. This was 17 years before 9/11. So why didn’t we think someone would try to do this. It turns out that Sondheim was working on a revival of this musical for a production in Fall 2001 (it was originally produced in 1991). September 11th. The musical was postponed… but isn’t the timing wierd.
A disturbing musical. I’m not sure I’d want to see it in person.