by Anthony DiSanto
A funny thing happened to Stephen Sondheim. With the Broadway opening of Company in 1970, he and maverick director Harold Prince had created a theatrical sensation: a show that explored the anxieties of contemporary urban America through the lives of five married New York couples and their emphatically anti-marriage best friend and his three girlfriends; a show that was as cool and reflective as the chrome and steel that designer Boris Aronson had utilized in his abstract, constructivist set; as cynical and sarcastic as a political cartoon, and funnier; a show filled not only with anger and anxiety, but with humor and tenderness and poignancy and longing; a show that did all this, and did it within the framework of that most distinguished and disparaged of American art forms: the musical.
After Company, from 1971 to 1981, Sondheim and Prince continued to experiment with the form of the traditional American musical comedy, creating in the process some of the most adventurous and provocative theater of their time: Follies (1971), a Felliniesque extravaganza which discovers in its title a rich metaphor for the death of the American Dream; A Little Night Music (1973), which turns the conventions of European operetta inside-out; Pacific Overtures (1976), a jarring blend of Broadway musical and traditional Japanese theater (Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku); Sweeney Todd (1979), a full-fledged modernist revenge tragedy viewed from within a stifling neo-Brechtian framework; and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an experiment about personal and professional disillusionment that tells its story backwards. With these shows, Sondheim established a reputation as something of a theatrical renegade: they were attacked as cold, heartless, depressingly bleak, relentlessly downbeat, unmelodic, and pretentious, if not utterly subversive in the way they trampled on the conventions of traditional musical comedy, which called for an optimistic outlook (not the irony and cynicism which are so much a part of the Sondheim/Prince shows), repetitive and easily remembered melodies (none of those complicated and unpredictable thematic fragments strung together with surprising harmonic progressions and frequent dissonances), good-natured humor (as opposed to Sondheim's often black and barbed comedy), heroes and heroines with whom audiences could easily identify (not the gallery of often unlikeable characters drawn by Sondheim: an anti-hero opposed to marriage, angst-ridden middle-aged chorus girls, sexually frustrated Swedish aristocrats, an unassuming Japanese clerk who rejects his cultural heritage, a psychotic serial killer and his demented accomplice, and a successful filmmaker who betrays his ideals), and comfortably concluded plotlines which left nothing unresolved (unlike Sondheim's often plotless, non-linear musicals which end ambiguously or tragically).
Many critics felt that these strange, unclassifiable theater pieces belonged on the opera stage: Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music both entered the repertory of the New York City Opera, while Pacific Overtures was given its British premiere at the English National Opera. Others thought they should be grouped under a new classification, the "concept musical" or "music theater." The classical seriousness of Sondheim's music and his wholly literary approach to lyric writing, not to mention the way these shows skewed stage time and mingled seemingly unrelated theatrical modes, or created frequently abstract or surrealist images, were so alien to the form of the traditional Broadway musical that most critics didn't know what to do with them. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the musical, supposedly America's most significant contribution to world theater, was in itself a classically viable theatrical and musical form, and that Sondheim's toying with what had become its conventions was not neccessarily a refutation of them, but, rather, an essential tool in his constant expansion of the form.
The resounding commercial failure of Merrily We Roll Along (it played all of 16 performances) led to the breakup of the Prince/Sondheim collaboration. This was much publicized among self-appointed cultural watchdogs who suddenly discovered (much to their own surprise) that the work Sondheim and Prince had created together had managed to completely alter the way musicals were created and perceived. This was a frequent response to Sondheim's work, which usually opened to derision and only gradually grew into its greatness; and this was the response to his next creation, Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Pulitzer Prize), which marked his first production after the breakup and his first venture into the not-for-profit off-Broadway forum (Playwrights Horizons, a company devoted to the ongoing development of new American work). With its vaulting vision of art as human glory, its sympathetic and ultimately forgiving attitude toward the complexities of human relationships, and the extraordinary beauty and serenity of its score, it also marked what appeared to be a softening of his formerly uncompromising bleakness. The same can be said of Into the Woods (1987), as deeply revisionist as any of his previous musicals, but more forgiving and life affirming than its predecessor, and, ultimately, more popular.
The funny thing is, many critics were as put off by these two shows as they were by the Prince-directed shows of the Seventies, and for none of the same reasons (not including the same tired complaint that the music wasn't "hummable," whatever that means). In fact, many saw particularly Into the Woods as a commercial sell-out, a desperate attempt to gain wide popular appeal. What had been seen, in shows like Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, as cynical and pessimistic was now seen as realistic, and it was said that the new work delivered many of the same messages in a sugar-coated form that was easily swallowed by masses of complacent theatergoers (Sunday in the Park with George was attacked more for being pretentious and inaccessible). Considering that this was the same decade that saw millions of people pay exorbitant sums of money for the privilege of seeing such lightweight fare as Cats, La Cage aux Folles, 42nd Street, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon, such criticism leveled at Sondheim's infinitely more challenging work (thematically, theatrically, and musically) seems curious indeed.
How did Sondheim respond to this criticism? He wrote Assassins (1991), a dark, disturbing, bleakly comic, ultimately chilling bad dream of a vaudeville which probed the dark side of the American Dream through subversive rewritings of American popular music as sung by the nine men and women who tried to -- and in four cases actually did -- kill the President. How did the critics respond? Predictably, the majority of them hated it. A significant percentage of reviewers misunderstood the piece, or, worse, made no attempt to understand it. The inordinate amount of negative criticism leveled at Assassins was, in many ways, a cultural backlash, because the show had the great misfortune to open the same week the United States went to war with Iraq, and its subject matter and themes, controversial in any time, seemed particularly unpatriotic and incendiary in the jingoistic fervor of that popular war. Many reviewers could not get beyond the unpleasant subject matter, and at least one was offended by the frequent profanity. In addition, most of them spent their time lamenting that this new piece was simply not up to the standards of such masterpieces as Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, or Follies.
Some people, it would seem, are never satisfied. What is curious is that Assassins is actually much closer to "vintage" Sondheim than either Into the Woods or Sunday in the Park with George: thematically and musically it is made of the same stuff as Company, Follies, and Merrily We Roll Along. More importantly, it is the tone of Assassins that makes it sibling to these early shows: both Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are much more optimistic than I think is comfortable for Sondheim, while Assassins -- with its insistent black comedy, profoundly unsympathetic (indeed, hateable) characters, provocative subject matter, revisionist use of classic American song forms, carnival setting, and its controversial and unpopular conclusions about the condition of the American psyche and the underside of the American Dream -- may be said to form the third play in a trilogy including Company and Follies.
One of the reasons that so many people were turned off by Assassins might be the fact that the show is less subtle and more directly confrontational than either Company or Follies. One need only consider just about any of the musical scenes (none can truly be called "songs") which give structure to the musical: the opening number is a deceptively upbeat soft shoe called "Everybody's Got the Right," in which the barker of a carnival shooting gallery entreats each of the Assassins to "C'mere and kill a president." It is this number (along with "Another National Anthem," a pivotal scene which appears late in the show) which most clearly delineates the musical's claim that the American Dream is not just dead, it was assassinated, and that the very act of murdering the Dream (Sondheim and his collaborators identify and dramatize the precise historical moment) was a direct outgrowth of the ideals of that Dream:
Aim for what you
Removed from their context, these sentiments might be those articulated in any number of conventional musical comedies; what makes them disturbing is that here they are attached to some of the most notorious criminals in American history. Moreover, not only does the song make use of these sentiments, it sets them to a bouncy musical comedy tune and converts the Assassins into a traditional Broadway chorus line.
This subversion of traditional musical comedy conventions, and of the expectations those conventions set up in the viewer, is one of Sondheim's hallmarks, and he uses it to great effect throughout the musical: Charles Guiteau (James Garfield's murderer) does a cakewalk up and down the steps of the gallows and sings a long, high end note that is cut off by the tightening of the noose around his neck; bystanders who witnessed the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt (by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara) sing of their differing perspectives on the event to a rousing Sousa march, while Zangara sits strapped into the electric chair to explain why he did it and await the surge of energy which will cut off his own end note (the scene is a hilarious burlesque of the famous mini-Rashomon number "Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures); John Wilkes Booth sings a passionate defense of his murder of Abraham Lincoln -- "Let them cry, 'Dirty traitor!' / They will understand it later" -- while the Balladeer (the show's pseudo-Greek chorus) taunts him:
You left a legacy
But traitors just get jeers and boos,
Later, the Balladeer sings a broad-shouldered and optimistic folk song about the Polish laborer Leon Czolgosz's assassination of William McKinley (the song makes much of the uniquely American dictum which states, "In the U.S.A. / You can work your way / To the head of the line," also a direct reference to the fact that Czolgosz simply took his place in the receiving line at the Pan American Exposition of 1901, and, when it was his turn to greet the President, instead of shaking his hand, shot him); John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (he shot at Ronald Reagan, she at Gerald Ford) sing of their warped devotion to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively, in a sumptuous duet that is both a hilarious and haunting parody of the music of such pop icons as John Lennon, Karen Carpenter, and Barry Manilow (they harmonize eerily on such chilling lines as "I'll find a way to earn your love, / Wait and see"). Throughout the show, such forms as Civil War ballads, folk songs, spirituals, cakewalks, hoedowns, barbershop quartets, Sousa marches, society waltzes, Broadway showtunes, and soft rock hits are revised, subverted, inverted, and in all other ways turned inside-out toward the end of explicating Sondheim's (and his collaborator, librettist John Weidman's) dark view of the American mind.
Like most of Sondheim's previous work, Assassins plays interesting tricks with stage time: more of a collage than a series of connected incidents, Sondheim and Weidman think nothing of putting Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (the two Ford assailants, who never met) on a California park bench to share aspirations and Kentucky Fried Chicken; or having Fromme and Hinckley (who also never met) sing their demented duet; or having Booth offer advice to Zangara in a saloon which is also frequented by Guiteau and Czolgosz; or having Booth, Czolgosz, Guiteau, and Moore sing in barbershop harmony, "All you have to do / Is move your little finger, / Move your little finger and -- / You can change the world"; or having Samuel Byck (a psychopath in a Santa suit who planned to divebomb a commercial jetliner into Nixon's White House) dictate an insanely funny and terrifying monologue to Leonard Bernstein; or having all the Assassins gang up on the Balladeer and stampede him out of their stories. In point of fact, until that moment, when the Assassins decide they've had enough of the Balladeer's easy moralizing, Sondheim and Weidman encourage us to view the Assassins as flukes, freaks and radicals and left-wing lunatics who, for all their hopes and dreams, accomplished nothing:
And it didn't mean a nickel,
Yes, you made a little momentBR>
And you stirred a little mud --
By this point, the Assassins have made much of their differing motives for their actions: Booth sought to avenge the war-ravaged South, Hinckley to make his movie idol notice him, Moore to validate her radical credentials, Guiteau to secure a political appointment, Czolgosz to call attention to the plight of the immigrant worker, Zangara to kill the sharp stomach pains he blamed on the upper classes, Byck to do something about what he saw as the fundamentally corrupt American political machine, and Fromme to give Manson a chance to testify at her trial and preach to the world. There has not been any unifying factor pulling these wildly different people together. For the most part they spend their time commiserating or taunting one another, but it is not until the Balladeer tells them that they accomplished nothing that they finally band together in the name of a common goal (a perversion of the awakening to community responsibility in the fairy tale characters in Into the Woods); but it is important to note that nearly everything in Assassins is a perversion of something, and that is very much the point: finally even the national anthem is corrupted by their insanity, and the Assassins have realized that there is power in solidarity:
We're the other national anthem, folks,
Spread the word...
There's another national anthem, folks,
Suddenly, this collection of misfits and losers has become a unified front, led partly by their desire to make themselves heard ("Nobody would listen!" Byck screams in naked rage), partly by their desire to make the American Dream work for them, knowing all the time (their own personal and varied experiences have proved it to them) that it won't; so they realize that there is another side to the Dream, and they embrace it not so much because they have turned away from the ideals of the Dream, but because they have been rejected by it. Once that is understood, they can then begin to understand their dark purpose.
It is important to stress that until this moment, they had no purpose; they make much of their motives, but that is a very different thing. The Balladeer, in making them face up to their own ineffectuality, awakens what had been a latent sense of community. The taunting he has directed at them throughout the show has finally backfired, and instead of submission he gets active rebellion, an organized uprising which literally forces him out of the story, which is a brilliant reversal of the turn of events in Into the Woods which saw the characters feed their storyteller to the Giant; there, the removal of the outside voice served to remove the sense of destiny controlling the stories of the characters and thereby allow them to make decisions for themselves. In Assassins, the exile of the Balladeer serves to remove the only moral perspective available to the audience, a perspective which, until now, had been consistently brought to bear on the actions and motivations of the Assassins. The result is that the audience must now make its way without guidance in a moral wasteland.
What happens next may help explain the almost universal hostility with which the play was received: a musical cross-fade takes us to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and the bewildering image of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a pistol to his head while a radio announces the arrival of Kennedy's plane at nearby Love Field. If we are suddenly chilled, it is probably because we have (caught up in the events of the previous hour or so) forgotten all about Oswald. We have, in fact, been encouraged to do so, and if we suddenly realize that the faint uneasiness which has been nagging us throughout the show has been due to the absence of this particularly notorious assassin, I suspect we are reacting exactly as the authors intended. As the scene progresses, we realize that this is in fact what all of the previously scattered events have been pointing toward: a nightmare confrontation between the suicidal Oswald and the other Assassins led by Booth.
One need not accept the Warren Commission's comforting conclusion that Oswald was solely responsible for Kennedy's assassination (as I do not) to be both intellectually and emotionally provoked by this scene; nor should one be put off by the obviously fantastical nature of this climactic confrontation (which has the vaguely unnerving quality of a Twilight Zone episode). The fact is that Oswald and Kennedy (like Booth and Lincoln) have become parts of our national mythology (Oswald may not actually have pulled the trigger, just as Kennedy may not really have been the martyr he is often made out to be, but that is, by this time, beside the point): if Booth was the pioneer (the musical seems to say), the one who started the whole abominable tradition, then Oswald was the one who gave Booth and all the others legitimacy. He is in fact the vivid personification of the dark side of the Dream, as Kennedy is the personification of its ideals. "All your life you've wanted to be a part of something, Lee," Booth says as he implores Oswald to fulfill his destiny. "You're finally going to get your wish." Sondheim and Weidman have identified here the precise cultural and historical moment of the death of the American Dream, and what makes it so diabolical is their claim that that death was a premeditated murder. When the Assassins banded together to embrace the dark side of the Dream, they came away with the awful communal purpose of destroying its idealism and optimism:
BOOTH: You can close the New York Stock Exchange.
In this moment all of the musical's fragments have coalesced into a chilling vision of trampled dreams and corrupted innocence, of evil reaching out to evil, of that underside of American existence we would all rather ignore standing up and shouting, "No! I am here, I exist, and I am not going to go away!"
What makes all this so difficult for many viewers to swallow is that Sondheim and Weidman offer no solutions: the Assassins, and the social and cultural conditions which created them, are simply there. There is no easy way to explain or deal with them; and anyway Sondheim and Weidman's presentation of them is entirely metaphorical, not really meant to be taken literally or realistically (the historical subject matter is misleading), which may account for some of the confusion on the part of the critics. Many similarly problematic works which handle provocative or controversial subjects are often misread on that basis: Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending (1957) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958) are prominent examples, as are Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1965), Sam Shepard's family plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind), David Rabe's Hurlyburly (1985), Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver (1976), David Mamet's House of Games (1986), Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), Sondheim's own Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, even Hitchock's Psycho (1960). All are penetrating -- indeed, terrifying -- explorations of American pathology (though they are all also considerably more than that), all make use of the conventions of their genre (Greek tragedy, family drama, film noir, political thriller, Broadway musical, horror story, mystery), and all have been as misunderstood as Assassins, in large part, I believe, because of their predominantly metaphorical structure and execution. Assassins is not, despite the subject, a musical about presidential assassins, any more than Suddenly Last Summer is a play about cannibalism and homosexuality, or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? about a deteriorating marriage, or JFK about the "true" events of the Kennedy assassination. The things that all of these works are ostensibly about are actually metaphors for the deterioration of American innocence. Indeed, each of them can stand as a cultural milestone in the decline and fall of the American Dream, which had its beginnings in the aftermath of World War II (the Holocaust and the dawn of the Nuclear Age) and reached its culmination in the Sixties and Seventies (the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Vietnam, Watergate, widespread urban decay, and economic Armageddon). Assassins tracks this deterioration not only by contrasting the idealism of such early assassins as Booth and Czolgosz (a follower of Emma Goldman) with the deviance and madness of later ones like Fromme, Byck, Moore, and Hinckley, but also by identifying that deviance and madness as both cause and effect of the deterioration. Disaffected and impoverished historical figures like Czolgosz, Zangara, Oswald, Fromme, Moore, and Hinckley are made to stand as symbols of a society which is losing control of itself, while the cycle of violence breeding more violence which the musical presents comes as a vivid warning of the eventual cost of that lost control.
These are not themes with which standard audiences generally wish to be confronted, and the fact that they were asked to deal with such confrontation from a musical was perhaps too much for most of them. It is truly remarkable how widespread is the notion (even now after Sondheim, Prince, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein) that musicals are not supposed to be complicated musically or intellectually, are not supposed to be challenging, are in fact supposed to be light, simple, escapist entertainment; and perhaps that is only to be expected, since the musical is still the most popular theatrical form in the United States, and the classics of the genre (Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot, and numerous others) were all, for the most part, written during a time of great national optimism, and as a result were honest and accurate reflections of their cultural and historical milieu. The problem with so many of the new musicals is that they try to regenerate that optimism into a culture for which it is no longer meaningful. A show like The Phantom of the Opera may be lush and romantic, with beautiful sweeping melodies and gorgeous scenery and costumes, all in the grand style of such aforementioned classics as Show Boat and My Fair Lady, except for the fact that it tries to transplant the style of another era to our contemporary one, where it looks and sounds like an antique; the distinction being that Show Boat and My Fair Lady, along with works like Porgy and Bess, Of Thee I Sing, Pal Joey, The Threepenny Opera, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, Candide, West Side Story, Gypsy, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Pippin, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Evita, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, The Secret Garden, and, just lately, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Blood Brothers, and Tommy belong to their own times (even though some of them are period pieces adapted from older -- and often significantly different -- works), exposing universal truths through examination of their contemporary concerns (that's what makes them classics), while The Phantom of the Opera -- like La Cage aux Folles, for all its pseudo-significant social consciousness; or Miss Saigon, for all its attempted political sophistication; or Annie, with its anachronistic sweetness and optimism; or the recent Will Rogers Follies, a complete regression to both the style and subject matter of an earlier period -- in trying to replicate the values of a different era in a style which may be theatrically viable but is no longer culturally pertinent, remain only nostalgic.
What this amounts to, in the case of Assassins, is a musical which, like Company and Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, uses the styles of the past to examine the state of contemporary America. Music in these shows functions (for Americans) as a sort of collective unconscious, providing audiences with a common frame of reference, which helps explain why most British productions of Sondheim musicals are so unsatisfying: the particular musical forms which he so often makes use of are so fundamentally American that British productions tend to lose much of their resonance. Like Show Boat, Pal Joey, Gypsy, Cabaret, Follies, Chicago and A Chorus Line, Assassins makes use of a theatrical performance mode which is so much a part of the average spectator's frame of experience that thematic concerns are established in the very concept (form does not simply reflect content, it actually becomes content); by reinventing classical American musical forms -- as well as the indigenous theatrical form of the musical revue -- within a thematically and politically provocative context, Assassins (along with its sister, Follies) transcends the merely topical and assumes an almost mythic resonance.
For a long time, the musical has had a reputation as America's single most significant contribution to world theater, a curious distinction for a genre which most critics and scholars still refuse to take seriously; but if Sondheim's work doesn't conform with what have become the conventions of the genre, we need only recognize that he is writing from a different historical perspective and for a different audience than his predecessors. His work is not for all tastes, and Assassins in particular is difficult and problematic; but its message -- and its methods -- are legitimate. Unfortunately, until the musical comes to be regarded as a serious theatrical, musical, and literary form, work like Assassins (and Sondheim's work in general, or the work of anyone seeking to explore the possibilities of the form) will probably continue to meet with scorn, outrage, and misunderstanding. The most serious practitioners of the form (Harold Prince, Tommy Tune, Susan Schulman, Marsha Norman, Lucy Simon, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, James Lapine, William Finn, Alan Menken, George Wolfe, Playwrights Horizons; the late Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Howard Ashman; and of course Sondheim) have given us glimpses of its potential; the next step is with the critics, and, more importantly, the audience.
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