|Program cover for Assassins at Theater Latte Da, 2018.|
Last weekend I saw Theater Latte Da’s excellent production of the musical Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by John Weidman. Assassins is a fascinating look at the four successful Presidential assassins, and five others who failed in their assassination attempts. The assassins depicted in the musical are: John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Guiteau, assassin of James A. Garfield, Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of John F. Kennedy (Assassins presents Oswald as acting alone, and not part of any larger conspiracy) Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to shoot Franklin Roosevelt, but missed and instead killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, Samuel Byck, who planned to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House in order to kill Richard Nixon, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who each tried to kill Gerald Ford in California three weeks apart from each other in September of 1975, and John Hinckley, who wounded Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. (Zangara presents perhaps the most intriguing “what if,” as his attempt on FDR’s life occurred after Roosevelt was elected, but before he was sworn in—what would the future of the Republic have been if FDR had not been there to lead us through the Great Depression and World War II?)
The cast of Assassins is superb—standouts include Dieter Bierbrauer, whose John Wilkes Booth becomes the engine for much of the play’s action, Sara Ochs, who offers us a portrait of Sara Jane Moore as a bizarrely incompetent housewife, Shinah Brashears, whose seeming sweetness as Squeaky Fromme is quickly offset by her unwavering belief in Charles Manson’s prophecies, the always excellent Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Benjamin Dutcher as the unflappably optimistic Charles Guiteau, who seems all too happy to ascend the gallows. Assassins is ably directed by Peter Rothstein, who has directed 71 shows for Latte Da, and who created All is Calm, about the 1914 Christmas truce, which I reviewed here. There’s a funny moment as James Detmar’s unhinged Samuel Byck is dictating a tape to Leonard Bernstein and starts singing “Tonight” and “America,” which Sondheim wrote the lyrics for. (You can read more about Charles Guiteau here, in my review of Candace Millard’s book about Garfield’s assassination, Destiny of the Republic.)
Assassins might seem like an odd idea for a musical—I’m sure the idea didn’t send financial backers running for their checkbooks—but it works. Sondheim wrote an excellent score, and he had already written a successful musical about a mass murderer—Sweeney Todd—so why not a show about Presidential assassins?
I thought about Assassins a lot, both before the show, and afterwards. I’m a history buff and a musical theater fan, so I’m probably the ideal audience member for Assassins. Historically, I think the show does a very good job of summarizing these characters. Of course, for most of the assassins, I can’t say I know much more than what’s presented in the show. How pathetic they all seem to me, these lonely souls, unable to connect with anyone else, thinking that assassination would be their ticket to fame and fortune. A recurring joke is that the assassin, or would be assassin, is telling the audience their troubles and someone else on stage says, “Well, why don’t you shoot the President?” As though that will solve all of their problems. The characters all want what they cannot have: Squeaky Fromme, pining after Charles Manson, John Hinckley, pining after Jodie Foster, John Wilkes Booth, pining for the fame and reputation of his brother Edwin, Charles Guiteau, hopelessly seeking the ambassadorship to France, Lee Harvey Oswald, craving the spotlight that had evaded him ever since he defected to Russia. As Sondheim said in a 2014 interview, “These are all people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.” Sondheim gives these people their moment in the sun, so to speak, so they can explain their actions, even if their reasons remain vague and opaque to rational people. I thought one of the most memorable songs was “Unworthy of Your Love,” a beautiful ballad sung by Hinckley and Fromme, all about their respective obsessions with Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.
Does the show glorify the assassins too much? Possibly, although it certainly doesn’t cast them in a positive light. I would argue that any artistic depiction of “bad” people runs the risk of glorifying them too much. Whether it’s a play, film, or novel, we’re so strongly taught as audience members to empathize with the main character that any depiction could be taken as glorification, even if it’s not meant to be. I suppose that’s the problem with art—it asks you to step inside someone else’s mind for a while, and while you’re there, you might find them a little more human. Martin Scorsese wasn’t endorsing the behavior of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but the twisted mind of John Hinckley transformed Travis into a figure worth emulating.
Assassins is a superb show that takes a hard look at America, and it asks the audience difficult questions about violence in America, questions that are sadly all too relevant in 2018. If you’re interested in pondering those questions, go see Assassins.