An Opinionated and Irreverent Revue of the Differences Between the Original 1970 and Revised 1996 Scripts of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Musical Comedy.
"Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks..."
Just kidding. Or am I? There is an entire sequence of dropped lines in Act One, scene one, cutting Joanne down from a very rude woman to just another member of the party, if a brassy one. The whole exchange where she condemns the whole crowd as Lois and Larry Loser, except for Amy (who she decides is crazy) and Peter (who is a looker) is gone. So is her threat to push over Susan's chair, and she no longer screams for Susan to "SHUT-UP" when Susan tells Robert to close his eyes and blow all the birthday cake candles out.
I have to give, as an example, the LBCLO production, where Carol Burnett played Joanne. Her rendition of the song "Ladies Who Lunch" was, as always, remarkable. However, during this first scene, even this great lady of comedy couldn't make us laugh at Joanne, much less like her. It wasn't Burnett's fault. The audience had changed. We have become, as a society, far more aware of behavior, especially behavior that is abhorrent. Joanne's rudeness and threats of violence simply are no longer accepted. We don't even laugh at them any more, which means that such behavior has to be changed somehow. While twelve-step programs were available in 1970, they hadn't yet gained widespread public acceptance. Likewise, the use of pharmaceuticals to control behavior was part of the 1970s, but tended to careen to the experiments of Timothy Leery. Prozac and the like are a recent development, still the subject of much debate, and we now merrily twelve-step everywhere we go.
In any case, Joanne now appears to be a nicer person, far more at ease with society, at least in this first scene. The extent to which she and Robert get smashed in Act Two, scene four, is still bothersome, but at least by that time the drinking has some dramatic context.
Something similar, although seemingly insignificant, takes place in the karate scene (Act One, scene two), when Harry is telling about getting arrested in California for drunk driving. Sarah's count of the number of bottles of wine Harry had drunk has gone down from five to three.
A bottle of wine is estimated to contain six glasses of wine. Consider the difference between three bottles (eighteen glasses) and five bottles (thirty glasses.) All in all, it's amazing Harry could even stand after three bottles of wine, let alone flunk the drunk test by only one point. Our awareness of the effects of alcohol is greater now, except perhaps at a few college fraternities.
Then again, back in 1970, drinking wine was thought of as something done only by the few snobs who actually understood the difference between a wine from Bordeaux and one from Burgundy. Most people, when drinking, grabbed a bottle of hard liquor, such as Robert's bourbon. This also explains why Robert, after spending an entire meal in Sarah and Harry's company, wouldn't have noticed that Sarah hadn't served wine with dinner. Not one of them would have thought of doing such a thing.
Of course, these days most of us still can't tell a Bordeaux from a Burgundy, but we side step the problem by ordering wines from California. Now, if only we could figure out the difference between a Merlot and a Pinot Noir.
I've already mentioned that this scene is wildly out of touch with today's attitude about recreational drugs. It's impossible to imagine this scene without the drugs, and impossible to reconcile the scene with today's social mores. It provides a good argument for keeping the play set in 1970, or thereabouts.
What is different with the scene in the revision is how a few additions have made much stronger the debate on whether Robert should get married. Take, for example, the following exchange:
David: Well, frankly, sometimes I'd like to be single.
At the very least, Furth catches in this short exchange the interplay that exists between so many married couples. He makes it clear that, if you saw David and Jenny walking down the street, even if they weren't in physical contact, even if they weren't talking between themselves, you would know they were married.
This is followed with a speech for Robert, listing all the excuses he has had for avoiding marriage, including school, security, and wanting to have some fun first. David counters with "Right. And you've done all those things." Throughout the revised play Robert's debate on whether he wants marriage is emphasized more strongly than in the original.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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