Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 27 September 2016

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins

Opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on December 18, 1990, and closed on February 16, 1991 after 73 performances. Directed by Jerry Zaks. The cast included Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, Patrick Cassidy, Debra Monk, Greg Germann, and Annie Golden. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The show has been sold out since previews began, reflecting the strong appeal of Sondheim’s work among the theater crowd.” Frank Rich in his New York Times review wrote “Assassins will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill.” Opened in London at the Donmar Warehouse on October 29, 1992 and closed on January 9, 1993 after 76 performances with direction by Sam Mendes. Opened on Broadway at Studio 64 on April 22, 2004 and closed on July 18, 2004 after 101 performances with direction by Joe Mantello. This show was supposed to open in 2001, but was pushed back until 2004, due to the recent terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Librettist- John Weidman- son of Jerome Weidman (librettist of Fiorello!) largely known as a writer for the hit children television program, Sesame Street.

Received a B.A. in East Asian History from Harvard and a J.D. from Yale. Nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book for a Musical three times. Libretti credits include: Pacific Overtures, Anything Goes, Assassins, Big, Contact, Bounce, Take Flight, Road Show, and Happiness. Composer/ Lyricist- Stephen Sondheim- received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer, including a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre); eight Grammy Awards; a Pulitzer Prize, and the Laurence Olivier Award. He has worked on countless musicals. Some credits include, West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Assassins. Director- Joe Mantello- mianly known for his direction in Wicked, Take Me Out, and Assassins.

Hes won two Drama Desk and Tony awards. Hes also directed for the hit TV show, Law and Order. Choreographer/Musical Staging- Jonathan Butterell- choreographer for the Broadway revivals of Nine, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Light in the Piazza. Also choreographed for several films including Finding Neverland. Michael Cerveris starred as John Wilkes Booth on Broadway (2004), while Victor Garber starred in the role off Broadway (1990). Other Broadway credits for Cerveris include, 18/20 year old Tommy/Narrator in The Who’s Tommy, the title role in Sweeney Todd, and Thomas Andrews in Titanic.


Time- Assassins opened on in 1990, so I presume the writing of the show occurred in the 80’s. In the show, they hop from one era to the next era. The era that my wish list occurs is in the year of 1865. Place- The play takes place in different areas of the U.S. where each Assassin lived. My scene takes place in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, moments before my death. The Balladeer, who portrays the youth of America, is on stage with me. David Herold also makes a small appearance. Society and Culture- 1865. Everyone wore very posh get-ups.

This is also the time of slavery, so what you wore depicted what class you belonged in. The rich were rich and the poor were poor. Economy- Despite the Civil War in the first half of the 1860s, the United States grew in population: from 31 million in 1860 to 38 million in 1870. This increase of 7 million included 2.3 million immigrants, 90 percent of them from Europe. An overwhelming percentage of them settled other than in the South Politics and Law- Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery which was the tipping point for Booth.


Plot- The evening begins at a fairground, in front of a shooting gallery that boasts a unique entertainment: “Shoot the President – win a Prize”. As the Proprietor presents his sideshow, eight figures come forward one by one to chance their luck, assassins drawn from over a century of American history. They are a disparate group, one dressed in a 19th century frock coat, another as a department store Santa. But each is handed his own distinctive gun – the preferred means of ultimate political protest in the United States. “EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT” to be happy, the Proprietor asserts. Last to arrive is John Wilkes Booth, who promptly uses his newly acquired weapon on President Lincoln. As the fatal shots ring out, the Balladeer steps out to sing “THE BALLAD OF BOOTH” a handsome devil who decided to take his bad reviews out on his Chief of State.

Holed up in a tobacco barn with his confederate David Herold, Booth is determined to set down his version of events: he’s not a common cut-throat, not a madman, but someone who did what he did for his country, who slew a tyrant – as Brutus did. But, even as Booth dies, the Balladeer’s ballad returns to point out that, thanks to him, Lincoln, who received mixed reviews, now gets only raves. The other assassins are in a bar. “Has Nixon been in?” asks Samuel Byck, still wearing his Santa suit. But it seems not. Booth is back, though, just in time to hear Giuseppe Zangara complaining about how nothing seems to relieve the pain in his stomach. Booth suggests shooting FDR.

“Will it help?” asks Zangara, but Zangara’s attempt misfires and he kills, instead, Mayor Cermak of Chicago. Grouped around the radio microphones in Miami’s Bayfront Park, a handful of bystanders boast, over the strains of a Sousa march, of “HOW I SAVED ROOSEVELT”, while, strapped into the electric chair, Zangara insists he is not left or right, only an “American nothing”. The song ends as the current is switched on. Forty years later, in the mid-Seventies, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme meet up over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, discuss the evils of fast food and end up taking pot shots at the graven image of Colonel Sanders. Neither is very good with a gun, but at least they have one. “It takes a lot of men to make a gun,” says Leon Czolgosz, a lumbering glass-factory worker contemplating the significance and power of his weapon.

In THE GUN SONG, Czolgosz, Moore, Booth and Charles Guiteau identify, in barbershop harmonies, the advantages of firearms: all you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world. The others wander off, leaving Czolgosz alone to consider what he should do. He is an admirer of the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman and, after one of her meetings, she suggested that he might like to visit the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. He does, and the Balladeer takes up the story in THE BALLAD OF CZOLGOSZ. As President McKinley shakes hands with visitors to the Exposition, Czolgosz wraps his gun in a handkerchief, joins the President’s excited admirers and kills Big Bill. 1n the USA, you can work your way to the head of the line”.

Back to the Seventies: Samuel Byck, an out-of-work tyre salesman, has hatched a bold scheme to kill President Nixon and is explaining it, via his cassette machine, to Leonard Bernstein, the busy conductor and composer. “Maybe if you can’t listen now,” suggests Byck, aware of the pressures on the maestro’s time, “you can listen ‘Tonight, tonight . . .’ I love that song”. His message completed, he leaves singing “Everything’s great in America . . .” John Hinckley also enjoys singing, but only his own compositions, angrily accompanied on his acoustic guitar. “UNWORTHY OF YOUR LOVE”, he admits in an overwrought ballad addressed to his “girlfriend”, Jodie Foster. Lynette Fromme watches and then delivers her own version of the number, addressed to her lover (and the new Messiah) Charles Manson. But Hinckley blows his opportunity to prove his worthiness to Jodie when he starts shooting unsuccessfully at a photo of President Reagan that is projected on to the back wall.

The President just keeps wisecracking his way through the bullets – and, hey, where’d that guy learn to shoot anyway? The Russian army? Charles Guiteau has better luck. In 1881, he meets President Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac station in Washington and asks to be made Ambassador to France. Garfield ignores him and is fatally shot in the back. Failed lawyer, preacher, politician and author, Garfield’s killer is looking forward to being an angel and, in “THE BALLAD OF GUITEAU”, cakewalks up and down the gallows steps with irrepressible cheerfulness. Before his assassination of Garfield and execution, Guiteau had given Sara Jane Moore some lessons in how to shoot up her Kentucky Fried Chicken more accurately. But they don’t seem to have paid off.

Trying now to shoot President Ford, she kills her dog instead. And she got all her dates mixed up, so she had to bring the kid along and he’s screaming for an ice-cream and Lynette is screaming at her for bring the kid and the dog to an assassination. “Look, we came here to kill the President”, shrieks Moore. “Let’s just kill him and go home”. Enter President Ford, who trips on the bullets she’s dropped, very considerately hands them back to her and proceeds on his way as Moore and Fromme pull their triggers helplessly behind him. After Sam Byck’s abortive mission to crash an airliner into the White House, he and the seven other assassins come together to explain their motives: one did it to avenge the ravaged South, another so her friends would know where she was coming from.

Now, they want their prizes. For the first time, they are no longer freakish, embittered, angry individuals but a group with a common purpose, marching to ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM – not the one you cheer at the ballpark, but the anthem of those who can’t get in. As the march dies away, the Blue Ridge Boys play Heartache Serenade, and we’re listening to a transistor radio in the sixth floor storeroom of the Texas School Book Depository on 22 November 1963. On the verge of taking his own life, Lee Harvey Oswald is interrupted by Booth and the other assassins, and invited instead to make history. The assassins who preceded Oswald say he will bring them back; those who came after him say he will make them possible, by once again making assassinations a part of the American experience.

His act can give them historical power as a united force, not as a bunch of isolated “nuts”. Oswald refuses and Booth entices him with the statement that when Hinckley’s room is searched after his assassination attempt on President Reagan, every book written about Oswald will be found. Through the window, flags are flying, bands are marching to patriotic tunes, the President’s motorcade is about to pass by the cheering crowds. 1n here, this is America, too”, says Booth – the land where any kid can grow up to be President, or grow up to kill a President.

Oswald picks up his gun and moves to the window. As President Kennedy dies, his assassin takes his place among his confreres in the last empty booth at the carnival. He has brought them back, he has made them possible, and, for those ordinary Americans, who’ll always remember where they were when they heard the news, SOMETHING JUST BROKE. Their despair stands in quiet contrast to the jaunty reprise of their theme, EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT … to their dreams.


Who- John Wilkes Booth, a well known actor in the 1860’s.

Super Objective- In his life: To clean his country of tyrants in the United States Government. In the song: To explain why he assassinated the President of the United States. What relationship do they have with other characters- David Herold was one of Booth’s accomplices and shares the last conversation ever with Booth. After he shoots himself, he acts as a conscience to the other assassins in the play, convincing them to kill a president. Character Plot- As soon as Booth enters the stage he shoots and kills Lincoln. He’s then seen in the barn where he’s hiding from the police. David Herold gives himself up without a fight, while John stays back. He asks to the Balladeer to pass on the true reason why he killed the president. He then proceeds to explain why he did what he did and then shots himself in the head.

Obstacles/Conflicts- the police have set the barn I’m in on fire. Character Backgroud- John Wilkes Booth absolutely obtained a degree from university. He also has a bum leg in this scene for he injured it during his escape from the Ford Theatre. What others say about me: The Balladeer – Johnny Booth was a handsome devil — Had him a temper but kept it level — Some say it was your voice had gone — they say you killed a country john because of bad reviews — Your brother made you jealous John, you couldn’t fill his shoes — They say your ship was sinkin’ John — They say it wasn’t Lincoln, John.

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