I've seen Assassins live twice, and both times the thought occurred to me: could we be arrested merely for watching this?
Threatening to kill a President is still a Federal Offense: a Class-E felony under United States Code Title 18 Section 871. It is illegal to make “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”
Personally, I think that’s a violation of Free Speech that can make willing martyrs of insane people who could be provoked to commit mass murder by a parking ticket. But during the Obama Era, perhaps these free speech violations made at least a slight bit of sense, and now that we're living in the Trump era, well... let's not go down this road...
But whether you see it during the Obama era or the Trump era, you can’t see a creation as explosively relevant to our time as any work could ever hope to be, and not see that at some point this work has the power to change our world in the blink of an eye.
The change might ultimately be for the good or ill or a mix of both, but in an American era when nearly 300 million guns are held for private use, when Presidents of both parties are routinely compared to Nazis, when a day with mass shootings is practically the rule rather than the exception, there is no work of art that could possibly have more explosive power than this. This is the rare work of art that does precisely what Plato warned against in The Republic. It practically puts the gun in assailant’s hands.
Assassins is an unholy blast of drama that could be written by Satan himself. It is America’s answer to Macb*th. It’s practically an incitement to terrorism. It shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the American Dream was built upon dirt and shit, and does nothing to console us with any redeeming vision. It shows us that the “other” America of people’s nightmares is the true America, and that we’re all just fooling ourselves if we think the world is anything better than the world brought upon us by these agents of the abyss.
When Assassins premiered in the week before Christmas 1990, the mood in America was as happy as ever since the end of World War II. After forty-three years of worry that the Soviet Union could incinerate us in an instant, the Cold War was finally done and we were the victors. The Persian Gulf War was humming along ‘peacefully,’ its resolution in clear sight. It was the first moment since Vietnam when everyone but the most hardened Leftists agreed that the exercise of American power was a concept for good, not evil.
The reviews against Assassins were crushing and the show closed after 73 performances - respectable for anybody but a composer whose every work seemed as though it turned to gold. Eleven years later, it was slated for a Broadway revival in October 2001. I needn't tell you what happened...
This is a musical with all the trappings that have been in place since Rodgers and Hammerstein, that depicts more than a century’s worth of famous terrorists - terrorists always motivated by fanaticism and pathological loneliness, nihilists like Edmund from King Lear and the Underground Man and the Joker, who want nothing more than to spread chaos and suffering. Fifty years before Assassins, Rogers and Hammerstein gave Oklahoma, a vision of boundless hope - in Assassins, the American Musical comes full circle with a vision of endless despair.
This is the musical that depicted Sam Byck, whom, thirty years before 9/11, attempted the hijack of a commercial airliner to ram the White House. This is a musical that shows Charles Guiteau, the Christian fanatic who killed James Garfield, anticipating his death with all the ecstasy of a suicide bomber: according to the famous drama critic, Frank Rich - “you find yourself wondering if he’s expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward.”
Or just consider some of the lyrics to what is aptly called ‘The Gun Song’:
“When you think what must be done/Think of all that it can do
Remove a scoundrel/Unite a party/Preserve the Union/Promote the sales of my book
Ensure my future/My niche in history/And then the world will see/That I am not a man to overlook...”
Is Assassins truly good enough to sustain a comparison to Macbeth or King Lear? I have no idea. What I do know is that like even lesser Shakespeare plays, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work.
Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Tolstoy and Beethoven, Chekhov and (ahem) The Simpsons, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in the very most immortal.
But while other works of Sondheim, with all their cynicism and heartlessness, can still hit you squarely in the feels, Assassins has pure acid and black bile in place of its heart. It begins and ends with the song "Everybody's got the right...", the right to happiness; and since everybody has the right, everybody also has the right to kill the President... Sweeney Todd, often called the ‘Great American Opera’, is similarly dark, but it’s just a warmup act for what we get in Assassins. In Sweeney, there is always a wink, a nod, something that assures us that this is all a fairy tale or a Grand Guignol melodrama, a delightful nightmare. It pulls the cape away with a whoosh, and we realize it's all a joke.Assassins shows us a world where you can kid about the darkest subjects, only to pull the cape away again, and reveal to us at all that there was no joke at all.
Assassins is a comedy so black that it ceases to be funny. It’s so light that half the lines in the musical could probably be interpreted as laugh lines, but the stakes are American History itself. The purpose of Sweeney Todd is to make a delightful assault on the audience to enjoy the dark underbelly of human nature, but the purpose of Assassins is to insidiously worm its way into our souls until it can eat away at our faith in humanity.
But while watching Assassins this time, something shocked me. The customary wordplay, the mile-a-minute ideas in Sondheim's lyrics, they were all gone. The songs themselves were self-effacing to the point that I'm not sure there was any self left. The entirety of the heavy lifting Assassins is done in John Weidman's book, itself based on a play by Charles Gilbert Jr. Perhaps it's intentional that Sondheim severely mutes his palette, and so knows good theater when he sees it that all he needs to do is provide an ironic score that with different lyrics just as easily serve as the music for a Rogers and Hammerstein style show about the childhood of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.
But since Sondheim had exhibited so little of his customary invention, perhaps it should come as no surprise that after Assassins, Sondheim’s industry slowed to a trickle. Three years later came Passion, which is generally regarded as his final great work. Since then, this once unconquerable master who seemed to churn out another masterpiece every three years has ground to a halt, just two shows in the last twenty years, both endlessly workshopped and retooled, with lukewarm reviews at every showing.
There's no shame in a creative block, particularly when you're an old man who was as productive when young as Sondheim was. But an unfortunate part of being a great artist is great luck, and Sondheim had luck past nearly any American. The rest of us would like to fancy ourselves more like Stephen Sondheim, but in terms of our luck and abilities if not our motives and plans, perhaps we're closer to Charles Guiteau.