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    Miller's Column

July 13, 1998 - #3

Scott wrote this column just before his production of Assassins opened last month.

This is the second time New Line has produced Assassins. People ask how this production will be different from the one we did four years ago. The most obvious thing is that this production is staged in the round. But the biggest difference is in how much better we know and understand these characters this time around. Thanks to cable TV and several new books, we know more now than we've ever known about these nine men and women. And what's most amazing to those of us working on the show is how well Sondheim and Weidman knew them back in 1990 when they wrote the show. There are so many wonderful little details throughout the show that make it so rich, so funny, so human, and most of all, so real. There is no sugar-coating here, but there is no judgement either, and those two things together make this not only a very disturbing piece of theatre, but also one of the most compelling shows I've ever worked on in my life. The show opens at a carnival, where a pitch man is selling guns to passers-by, in this case, would-be assassins. But this scene is about more than atmosphere. The pitch man, called "The Proprietor" in the script, represents our country, our society, in which unfulfilled promises of that mythical "American Dream" and too easy access to handguns makes assassination a viable option for people who feel they've been wronged, and for people who want some attention from our freak-hungry media. Like our culture, the Proprietor offers each assassins exactly what he or she most craves, then hands them a gun to get it. It's sobering to know (and an irritating statistic for the gun lobby, no doubt) that fifteen of the seventeen political assassinations committed in America in the last 170 years were committed with concealed handguns. Only Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray did not use handguns. At this time in our history, when lobbyists in every state are fighting to make carrying a concealed weapon legal, this opening scene is more chilling than ever.

In the second scene, we meet the Balladeer, a singer and storyteller who represents the story-telling tradition in America, a tradition that, by necessity, over-simplifies the very complex men and women who become assassins. But that over-simplification leads to misunderstanding and the drawing of false conclusions. The tension between the real stories and the Balladeer's simplified stories will grow throughout the show until it explodes in the penultimate scene. For instance, we've always been told that John Wilkes Booth was a failing actor and his act of assassination was a pathetic attempt to regain his notoriety. But in fact Booth was making more than $20,000 a year when he took time off from his touring to focus on politics. He was rich and his career was in full bloom. He was one of the most celebrated actors in America. Many contemporary critics said he was even better than his older brother, Edwin, who was also considered a brilliant actor. Aside from his first job as a teenager, Booth simply didn't get bad reviews. He had many friends. He was known as charming, friendly, helpful, generous. He loved kids, and treated the stable boys with the same respect he gave to the rich ladies. He was not the madman we have heard so much about. It's important to know this, to know that Weidman did not "sugar-coat" the portrayal of Booth, that Booth was just as charming and friendly as he appears in the show. And let's not forget that Lincoln was widely despised in the North and South. Every charge Booth levels against Lincoln in the show is true. It's not hard to see why Booth thought his act would be praised. He loved his country deeply and saw it dying, and though we cannot approve of the murder he committed, his patriotism was real. Yes, he was also a racist, but so was the majority of the country (North and South). We can't fault Booth for his racism any more than We can fault Jefferson or Washington for theirs. It was wrong, certainly, but we must see it in context.

Every scene in the show brought with it fascinating details like these for us to discover, explore, and have fun with. For instance, Emma Goldman was a strong, vocal -- and practicing -- proponent of "free love." She slept with many men, and probably really would have stayed to "fall in love" with Czolgosz if she didn't have a train to catch. (Yes, the two of them did really meet, though not in the context in the show.) Knowing what Goldman believed about sex and love, it adds a much heavier sexual tension to the conversation between her and Czolgosz. It also makes us wonder how it would have changed the lonely Czolgosz if he had received genuine physical affection from Goldman, this woman he admired, almost worshipped.

Sara Jane Moore really was married five times. And she really did work as an informant for the FBI -- until she told the people she was spying on that she was a spy. So the FBI fired her and her radical friends stopped talking to her. She tried to re-establish both sets of contacts but was never successful. Her attempt on Ford was an attempt to re-establish her credentials as a political activist, so that her friends "could see where [she] was coming from," as she says in "Another National Anthem." And Moore really did grow up in the same town as Charles Manson. Manson's mother worked in a store where the teenage Sara Jane spent a lot of her time hanging out.

Fromme planned to represent herself in court so that she could set her own defense and call her own witnesses -- Manson among them. But the Judge insisted she take a court appointed attorney and refused to let her call Manson. Because she then refused to cooperate with the court, she spent much of the trial watching it on a closed-circuit TV from a cell. Charlie never got to testify.

When Hinckley sings the lyric "I am unworthy of your love, Jody, Jody," there's more going on than what's on the surface. His mother's nickname was Jody. In addition to that, five months before he shot Reagan, John Hinckley was stopped at a Nashville airport with three guns, all of which were confiscated. Jimmy Carter was scheduled to arrive at the same airport that same day.

Guiteau's failed seduction of Sara Jane Moore in the show is even funnier if you know that he had a long standing reputation for his constant failures with women. He'd come on to anything in a skirt, and though he was always rebuffed, he'd always try again. But the other fun detail in this scene is that each of Moore's five husbands had been one step higher on the social ladder than the one before. So when Guiteau asks if Moore would like to marry the next ambassador to France, she might be interested. Her fifth husband was only a doctor.

The opening words Guiteau sings in "The Ballad of Guiteau" are verses he actually wrote and read before he was hanged. He said before he read them, "If set to music they may be rendered effective." Who knew they'd become theatre lyrics? Guiteau planned a lecture tour of Europe and then America after he was found innocent of Garfield's assassination. He then planned to run for President himself. After the assassination, Guiteau claimed that since Garfield lived for two and a half months after being shot, that medical malpractice was the cause of death, not Guiteau's bullets.

When Squeaky Fromme asks Sara Jane Moore in the show if she remembered to put bullets in her gun, it's even funnier if you know that, in real life, there were no bullets in Fromme's gun when she tried to kill Ford. Some think she just forgot to load her gun. Others think she never intended to hurt Ford, only to get arrested and get a public forum for Manson as one of her witnesses.

On his way to hijack the plane, Sam Byck shot and killed a security guard, and then shot and killed the co-pilot. He shot the pilot twice but did not kill him. Two shots were fired at him from outside the plane, through the front window. The first one hit the leg of a woman Byck was holding hostage. The second hit Byck in the stomach. As he lay in a pool of his own blood, he put his gun to his head and shot himself dead.

The FBI knew -- in advance -- about the plans (at least to some extent) of Oswald, Moore, Fromme, Byck, and Hinckley. But in all five cases, the FBI decided these people weren't dangerous enough to be taken seriously.

Booth's speech to Oswald about Brutus is even more intense when you know that Booth's father's name was Junius Brutus Booth, that in fact, the Booth family greatly admired Brutus. On top of that, Booth's first stage role was Richmond in Richard III - a man who kills a murderous tyrant.

(Some of this info comes from the book American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics by James W. Clarke, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1982, revised 1990. It's the best book written on the subject so far, with detailed info on each assassin's childhood, family, politics, relationships, etc.)

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