by Brenda W. Clough
Stephen Sondheim’s musicals divide out into those that are plot-driven, and those that are more thematic. The ones with a real plot arc — among these I would place Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — are always based, however lightly, upon other material, because the man is not actually a storyteller.
In many ways the theme-driven musicals — Follies, Pacific Overtures, Company — are more difficult. And Assassins surely is of that number. A musical about American presidential assassins — is that unusual? But although there’s an arc, and dramatic tension, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat, there’s no -story- as anyone would define the term. This is a thematical musical. I caught the NextStop Theatre Company‘s production in Herndon, VA last weekend, and wow! They have caught the full riveting quality of Sondheim’s score and John Weidman’s book.
A show about killers ought to be troubling. But this show is troubling in the right way. The title characters are not idolized or glamorized. The show shuffles them around into their categories, the two female killers (Squaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, remember them?), the two obsessive lovers (Squeaky plus John Hinckley). And it is clear that all these people are deeply troubled and unhappy, certainly not worth emulating. John Wilkes Booth displays this shift perfectly, when he lyrically describes his cause and then suddenly begins ranting about that nigger-lover Abraham Lincoln. These are all people driven by ugly demons, utterly unworthy of admiration.
In this day and time, this is a peculiarly disturbing show. I’ve taken to quoting some key lines from “The Ballad of Booth“:
Someone tell the story,
Someone sing the song.
Every now and then
Goes a little wrong.
Every now and then
Bound to come along.
Doesn’t stop the story-
Story’s pretty strong.
Doesn’t change the song…
This show is like lifting a big rock, a view of the dark side of the American psyche — the other national anthem.You look at all the creepy things underneath, and know that we are better. This is expressed by the final word in the show, the song sung by not the assassins but the average Americans. They — we — know.