Assassins: A Very Short Review

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
The country
Goes a little wrong.

Every now and then
A madman’s
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.







Assassins: A Very Short Review — 4 Comments

  1. Let us not forget that this national anthem glorifies slavery and threatens those who are poor and enslaved and gloats about defeating them. It’s in that verse that embarrassed people stopped singing, but it was written. But then, the clauses about slaverywritten into the signature Constitution — but the you know whos pretend they aren’t there. But they probably don ‘t care about that either any longer since the nazis and white supremacists and apologists for slavery like Kelly think it was honorably men who fought to keep it going. Feh.

  2. I would like to add, due to the context of Clough’s writing about history in entertainment, that the defense raised for Kelly’s entirely ignorant and wrong take on the history of the Civil War was that he learned it from Ken Burns’s Civil War and Burns’s choice to use Shelby Foote as the talking head authority. Foote, who I have been teaching for years was a NOVELIST, not an historian, and a southern story teller at that, and who wrote a history of the civil war in which there is not a single citation or bibliography.

    Foote made up conversations in letters of Lee to show him as not a racist and anti-slavery — which Lee’s real letters, among other sources prove him to be. He made up letters and conversation of Grant, to show him a racist and pro-slavery, which the actual sources show quite otherwise.

    But. um, it makes for a better story, so it’s OK? No it is not OK. Because these matters continue to gnaw the decency and intelligence out of the United States citizens, and are used to justify the current movement of nazis and white supremacists and haters of all kinds.

    There were actual historians of the Civil War that Burns had called on, but his choice was to ignore the woman who was a legitimate, credentialed historian and give the screen time to this o shucks good ol boy. Burns should be reviled for this, as I’ve been saying for years because his PBS series and Shelby Foote are still revered and believed implicitly by so many people who don ‘t know the history, but think they do cause they watched a few hours of tv.

    Yes indeed, entertainment and fiction have moral obligations in their choices of historical stories and how they tell them. Both Burns and Foote, and those who believe them, have chosen to tell lies and perpetuate the lies that made the civil war in the first place.

  3. Every creator who deals with historical matters has to balance them. We (most of us) want to speak for good, for the right. But we also, inevitably, are creatures of our era; there is no escaping your own historical period any more than fish can get out of the water they swim in. We write from where we are — we can try, but we may not be able to help it.
    Books and movies and plays are in that sense time machines. You can pick up GONE WITH THE WIND or TALE OF TWO CITIES and step back into the past, into the mindsets and prejudices and values of the past. The sexism, racism and so forth of the works of the past is often shocking. A great work is read in spite of it; Aeschylus speaks to the ages.
    Ideally, the creator balances it. You write of the 1800s and are fully aware of the problems; your characters cannot espouse modern values because that would be anachronnism, but the reader can be aware of them, because the author put them in. A great example of this would be MARCH, by Geraldine Brooks.