America has lived with the terror of politics by assassination since 1835, when a deranged house painter attempted to murder President Andrew Jackson. Assassins, by lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman, is a kaleidoscopic musical theatre exploration of nine people who committed (or attempted to commit) political murder in America over a period of two centuries. Assassins opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York on January 27, 1991, under the direction of Jerry Zaks.
In the framework of a showbiz revue, Assassins gives voice to the nine characters’ hopes, fears, and furies by exposing the twisted thoughts that make them such intriguing figures. Crossing barriers of time and space, the assassins commiserate with each other, explaining their actions with pride, pain, and dark humor. They become a chorus, united by their deeds and their tormented motivations. As the audience is pulled in and kept off-balance by the constantly changing pace and tone of the show, they see evil connect with evil. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the individual assassins awaken to their collective identity, and come to personify an underside of the American dream where anybody can grow up to kill a President.
Assassins suggests that our leaders are the victims of frequent assassination attempts largely because American mythology promises everyone a right to their dreams; if these dreams are not attained, someone must be responsible. The nine assassins share a desperate need to reconcile their belief in this myth with their sense of personal hopelessness.
American assassins have tended to act as solitary figures. Often, rather than killing to advance or sustain a political cause, they have sought notoriety, however temporary, for themselves. Deluding themselves with fantasies that their one great deed will maintain or restore the perfect nation, they believe that they have righted a fundamental wrong by behaving in accordance with American ideals. In Assassins, the nine central characters sing “Another National Anthem” because they are denied entrance to the playing fields where the real anthem is sung.
Each character in Assassins was thrust into our awareness by committing a terrible act. While we might normally perceive them as freaks with no message for us, the time we spend with them in the show reveals them to be multidimensional people with problems who have more in common with the rest of us than we might like to acknowledge.
As we are drawn into the crazed complexities of the assassins’ minds, we are forced to recognize the extent to which violence has become commonplace in our national life. As theatre critic Frank Rich stated in his New York Times review of Assassins (1/28/91), “there is a shadow America, a poisoned, have-not America, that must be recognized by the prosperous majority if the violence in our history is be understood and overcome.”