Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

'Assassins' a stunning, tantalizing, surreal kaleidoscope of historical killers

But why does the show reduce motivations to psychology and discount politics?

By Lucy Komisar


Book by John Weidman.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Musical staging by Jonathan Butterell
Musical direction by Paul Gemignani

Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54
254 West 54 Street

Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" is a stunning spectacle. It is a surreal kaleidoscope of events and characters, set in the venue of a carnival side-show, complete with a proprietor/barker (Marc Kudisch) and a cast of oddballs and freaks. Director Joe Mantello has created a colorful, tantalizing, fantastical production. The set is a wood structure that seems to be a part of a roller coaster, with stairs that end midway to the stage. The scene is edged in bright light bulbs.

The show is replete with Sondheim cleverness, including a barbershop quartet singing "How I saved Roosevelt."

The roulette wheel spins, and a shooting gallery killer finds a target. It's Abe Lincoln. And there comes John Wilks Booth (Michael Cerveris). He's turned killer, because he got bad reviews. Perhaps that's meant to be facetious, but it's of a par with the rest of the Sondheim-Weidman conception, and it's the major flaw in a show that is brilliant in its music and staging. It reduces all the killers' motivations to psychology, ignoring the strong impetus of politics for many of the assassins.

According to Sondheim, the killers were "people leading lives of desperation," mentally disturbed individuals looking for thrills. Failures, misfits – except that the description doesn't fit the most powerful character shown, Leon Czolgosz (superbly acted by James Barbour), an anarchist in the late 1800s who started in a factory job at 12, railed at the exploitation of earning 6 cents an hour, and shot President McKinley. He said, "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I done my duty."

The Assassins
James Barbour and Neil Patrick Harris
Photo by Joan Marcus
Yes, Emma Goldman (Anne L. Nathan) says, he's been brought to brink of madness and despair by what men have done to him. But that is a description of political fury at a system where "other men might live their lives in ease and comfort," while he suffers extreme poverty; it is not a description of mental illness.

Another radical, Giuseppe Zangara, started work at age six, suffered severe stomach problems he blamed on the work, and in a fury at the capitalist system tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sammy Byck (Mario Cantone), an unemployed tire salesman, believed the American political system was corrupt, sent taped harangues to famous people, picketed the White House Christmas Eve 1973 dressed as Santa Claus, and tried to kill President Nixon by hijacking a plane he planned to crash into the White House. He was killed in the attempt.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris) enters the Dallas Book Depository building. Was his motivation for shooting President Kennedy also psychological? Most Americans now believe there was a lot more to the killing of Kennedy than suggested by a lone gunman run amok.

And Booth's assassination of Lincoln was, of course, political.

The women killers – Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison) and Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker) – do seem certifiably nuts. At least, Mantello presents them as pretty ditsy, more silly than sinister. Fromme was a disciple of Charles Manson, and Moore, a former member of the Women's Army Corps, an accountant, a counterculture activist, and an FBI informant, tried to kill President Gerald Ford. If she was nuts, neither the WACs nor the FBI appears to have noticed!

There's plenty to upset the NRA: "When you have a gun, everyone pays attention. Trust your little finger." "Everybody's got the right to his dreams," they all sing, and they point their handguns at the audience. That, of course, is political. So why did Sondheim turn what were essentially politically motivated assassinations into the work of crazies?

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