The idea for Assassins first planted itself in Stephen
Sondheim's mind when he was serving on a panel at Stuart Ostrow's
Musical Theater Lab and read a play by a young playwright named
Charles Gilbert. Gilbert had submitted a script about a fictional
presidential assassin, and although Sondheim found the play itself
problematic, he was fascinated by the peripheral material Gilbert
had compiled--letters and anecdotes from actual assassins. Several
years later, after obtaining permission from Gilbert, Sondheim
decided to tackle the project along with John Weidman, a lyricist
whom he had previously collaborated with on Pacific
Originally, Sondheim and Weidman intended to explore the lives of assassins throughout history beginning with Brutus and Julius Caesar, but they soon realized this was far too broad a topic and decided to limit themselves to assassins who had attempted to kill the President of the United States. As the project developed, their task soon became clear--to dramatize the unpopular thesis that the most notorious killers in our culture are as much a product of that culture as the famous leaders they attempt to murder.
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.
The musical comes into sharp focus as we are transported to
the Texas School Book Depository, November 22, 1963, where Lee
Harvey Oswald, lonely and distraught, prepares to take his own
life. That is, until Booth and the other assassins arrive and
attempt to transform him into their avenging angel. Oswald, they
believe, is their savior. He can justify their actions and secure
for them all a place in history. Kennedy's assassination will
be a watershed event--a crucial test against which all other
acts of political violence will be measured. They feel this final
act, if successful, will somehow legitimize their senseless lives.
As the play builds to a climax, the assassins chant:
- We admire you...
- We're your family...
- You are the future...
- We're depending on you...
- Make us proud...
- All you have to do is squeeze your little finger.
- Squeeze your little finger...
- You can change the wor--
- (Oswald Fires.)
Assassins premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons
on December 18, 1990 with a cast that included Victor Garber
(Booth), Terrence Mann (Czolgosz), Jonathan Hadary (Guiteau),
Lee Wilkof (Byck), Annie Golden (Fromm), Debra Monk (Moore),
Patrick Cassidy (Balladeer), Greg Germann (Hinckley), and Jace
Alexander (Oswald). The play opened to a sold-out run of 73 performances,
but in spite of Sondheim's reputation, the musical did not transfer
to a larger house. The United States was on the verge of the
Persian-Gulf War, and the country was in a state of patriotic
fervor. Audiences were not ready for the message Sondheim and
Weidman were delivering. In fact, it was not until the passions
of war cooled and the soundtrack was realeased on compact disc
that Assassins truly began to be receive the critical
acclaim that it deserves.