Sondheim’s “Assassins” in the current age

Several musical theatre composers have attempted musicals about presidential politics. Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein both had legendary flops with their attempts: Mr. President and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, respectively. But only one musical theatre legend thought it would be a grand idea to create a musical around people who attempted to assassinate presidents. Who else but Stephen Sondheim, master of the complex rhyme scheme and even more complex chord structure. His musical Assassins turns a motley assortment of nutjobs and hapless souls into antiheroes. We come to like them, with their absolute conviction and their charming songs. And we find ourselves rooting—fleetingly, guiltily—for their success. Even though we know the havoc that an assassination can wreak: on the family left behind, and on society.

Art for Yale Rep's AssassinsAssassins has an interesting history. Its premiere coincided with the start of the first Gulf War, in 1990. With actual Americans being killed in the desert, it wasn’t a great time to wax philosophical about killing presidents. About a dozen years later, the Roundabout Theatre Company planned a revival…but postponed it after the September 11th attacks. Again, not a good time for an entertainment about violence. So when Yale Rep announced Assassins as part of its season this year, I worried. Was another calamity waiting in the wings? I crossed my fingers and bought a subscription.

The Roundabout finally mounted its revival in 2004. I remember being struck by how beautiful some of the songs were—one love song in particular. Incongrous, of course, a beautiful love song in a show about murder. But that’s Sondheim for you.

Sondheim’s Assassins in the age of Trump

The music remains beautiful in the Yale Rep production, which I saw on Tuesday night. But in the current age, with violence seeming to lurk below every surface (and far above the surface for Russians around the world), the show seemed particularly creepy. It seemed less about the assassinations than about the feelings of disempowerment that led to them. The assassins are crazy people, certainly. But people trying however they can to make themselves heard. I found myself getting lost in that dynamic—and then being pulled back to reality with a literal bang. Every time a gun went off, I jumped. Damn, I thought, Sondheim got me again.

“Everybody’s got a right to be happy,” the cast sings. Yes, well, maybe. But no one has a right to be violent. I do not wish assassination on anyone. Ever. But the show made it a little too easy to see how ordinary—okay, crazy—people can turn into assassins without much provocation.

There’s certainly a lot of provocation floating around these days. And disempowerment. And crazy people—some of them holding the reins of power. What are we to make of this world? How will it all end? I pray we all make it out of the theatre safely.

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