15 February 2008

Assassins review

Assassins was Sondheim's last musical on Broadway. It opened on Broadway on 2004 as a revival of the 1991 Off-Broadway production. Assassins is a musical with an unusual premise: who were the men and women who tried to assassinate US presidents and why did they do it? The said assassins include famous figures like John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinkley as well as more obscure people like Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Sara Jane Moore. Each assassin has their own song, their turn in the spotlight to explain why they did it.

Like Sweeney Todd, much shock value is derived from having dark and manic characters sing beautiful songs in the style of Civil War ballads, Sousa marches, and other patriotic music. I'm a big fan of pre-1950s American tunes, so I certainly enjoyed Sondheim's music (after my elementary school unit on the Civil War, I ran around singing "Goober-peas").

The motivations of the assassins are as varied as their personalities. Sometimes they are political. Leon Czolgosz claims to have done it for the sake of the poor and oppressed (he tried to join anarchist organizations). John Wilkes Booth claims that he did it to save the South from that tyrant Lincoln. However, the commentary of the Balladeer and Booth's subsequent appearances in the musical make it seem like Booth was after fame and theatrics (Booth was a charismatic actor). Other people are simply insane. Charles Guiteau was a megalomaniac who wanted to be ambassador to France and felt insulted when the president wouldn't grant him the position. Guiteau and Booth are the most flamboyant and outgoing assassins. The loner John Hinkley wanted to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Giuseppe Zangara suffered from severe abdominal pain, which seems to have driven him crazy. To relieve the pain, he decided to murder a president; he wanted everyone to hear his suffering. The women assassins, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, are treated unfairly, in my opinion. They are simply reduced to comic relief characters. Moore is depicted as a klutz who can't even load a gun. Finally, there is Lee Harvey Oswald. No one really knows what his motivations were, so the musical invents a story about how Oswald wanted to kill himself, but the other assassins goad him into killing the president. Huh?

The musical does not celebrate these assassins. Not a single person really gets their "prize", except maybe Guiteau who finally got the media attention he wanted. In fact, as the Balladeer points out, Lincoln ended up being one of the most revered American presidents because his term was cut short by Booth's assassination -- surely not the result Booth would have wanted.

What is the audience supposed to make of Assassins? The obvious answer is that it's about the corruption of the American Dream. The office of president is the pinnacle of the American Dream, so assassinating the president is equivalent to trying to destroy the American Dream. What seems like a beautiful idea - "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - has a dark underside. If you have money, health, and joy in your life, there's someone else in the country who doesn't have that and wants it badly, maybe badly enough to take it away from you by gunpoint. However, I don't think this idea is unique to America. How is the American Dream different than the generic yearning for a better life? Because we have a legacy of freedom and anti-aristocracy in America, (some) people feel entitled to a perfect life, the most coveted objects being money and fame. If popular television is an accurate barometer of American culture, it seems like people value fame more than anything (e.g. acting like morons on talk shows like Jerry Springer). Killing is about the quickest shortcut to fame I can think of. You can "make your way to the head of the line" as the Balladeer explains in "Ballad of Czolgosz." Even in our jaded modern society, killing can emotionally devastate people and thus generate media attention, if you pick the right targets (presidents, innocent students). Moreover, in a land which celebrates diversity and welcomes immigrants, we have to take the bad apples (the insane, deranged) with the good. The dreams of the assassins (wanting fame, wanting to impress Jodie Foster, wanting to make political statements, etc) are just as valid as our own. The problem is that they went to unacceptable extremes.

I noticed a chronological progression in motivation from political (Booth and Czolgosz) to self-absorbed and fame-grabbing (Hinckley and Fromme). Are we supposed to think that TV and popular culture is responsible for increasingly senseless killing like the Virginia Tech massacre? There is probably some truth in that, though I'm not sure pop culture can account for all of it. With the internet, TV, cable, etc, you can isolate yourself completely from sane human beings and warp your perceptions. If someone can achieve fame by singing terribly on YouTube, why can't you get your moment in the spotlight by murder?

After some deliberations and several listens of the cast album, I felt like I learned a lot about some obscure historical figures and added to my conception of what the American Dream is about. I'm cerebrally satisfied, but emotionally, no. If I went to get a personal take on revenge and killing, I'll turn to Sweeney Todd. Assassins is indeed a thought-provoking and original piece of work, but when it comes to the music that resonates with me, it's the heart and not the head.

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