Here are some of the things audience members unfamiliar with American history and its dark corner containing Presidential assassins will learn as they watch the much-acclaimed Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Assassins,” a very fine production of which I saw over the weekend:
…Nobody knows why actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. It may have been “bad reviews.”
...Lee Harvey Oswald worked in the Dallas book depository, and and was originally going to shoot himself, not President Kennedy.
…Giuseppe Zangara was attempting to assassinate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he killed the Mayor of Chicago and wounded five bystanders in 1933, but didn’t really care which, because both of them “controlled the money.”
…Sarah Jane Moore was a quirky, whacky, Lucy Riccardo-like housewife who just wanted to kill President Ford for no particular reason.
…Moore and Lynnette “Squeaky’ Fromme knew each other and jointly attacked Ford.
…President Garfield “succeeded Grant.”
…Presidential assassins are all cut from the same psychological cloth, desperate Americans living on the margins of a cold-hearted nation that ignores them, who decide to become important by killing a President of the United States.
None of the above is true, and that just scratches the surface of the elaborate, anti-America conceit that is “Assassins.” It is conceived as a cynical carnival game underlying a time-warping portrait of some of the men and women, far from all, who have tried, successfully or not, to murder a President of the United States.
I have seen the show multiple times, and it has always been (mostly) well-produced, directed, and acted, although if you set out to drive someone like me crazy, having Booth shoot at Lincoln with a revolver and having Oswald fire just one shot at Kennedy are good ways to do it. The show is also infuriating in its deliberate defiance of history to execute what a couple of artists think is a cool concept and a strong political statement that amounts to an evening’s worth of disinformation. The idea about assassins being a callous society’s losers and outcasts just doesn’t work, and should have signaled that it doesn’t work from the start: Booth, the leader of the time-traveling murderers—they all show up in the book depository to persuade Oswald to kill JFK—disproves the thesis in the first 10 minutes. Booth was no outcast or loser. He was a celebrity. He was successful, famous, and relatively wealthy. He was healthy, relatively sane, and in good shape. Booth was a Confederate fanatic, and determined to do what he could to pull victory out of defeat for the South by killing Lincoln, but he was hardly in the same class as, for example, Charles Guiteau, a certifiable loon, or John Hinckley. Leon Czolgosz , who shot McKinley, was no crazier than Booth. He was a political radical as well, an anarchist like Sacco and Vanzetti, and was convinced that the government had to be brought down in the interests of justice.
Oh, whatever. Details, details. Weidmen’s unforgivable book lumps all motives, passions, political views and ideas genuine and not into a single thesis, “They were all crazy, and America is at fault.” Their targets, meanwhile, the Presidents, are completely dehumanized. Only two appear on stage, and one of those, President Ford, is portrayed as a buffoon. Madness itself is periodically represented as a hoot. Sam Byck was a scary madman who killed two officers and himself trying to hijack a plane to fly into Nixon’s White House. The book never reveals that, I assume to make sure his unhinged rants in recorded messages to such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein get lots of laughs. Squeaky’s delusional reflections on Charlie also are used to raise guffaws: after all, there’s nothing as funny as the Manson Family! Guiteau’s vainglorious delusions, and of course that zany Sarah Jane Moore, are also giggle-fodder. Yet these people were not funny. In addition to the Presidents they attacked, the nine assassins and would-be assassins killed four bystanders and wounded nine. Hilarious! Nor is mental illness funny when it is associated with real human beings. Jack D. Ripper is funny in “Dr. Strangelove” because he satirizes real fanatics. Sarah Jane Moore was not a funny housewife who couldn’t load a gun, she was a cold-eyed killer. Guiteau was nuts, but he also stalked President Garfield for weeks and may have robbed our nation of a great President. Mental illness is a serious problem in the United States that is too often trivialized, with the public, pop culture and news media marginalizing the kinds of people that “Assassins” claims shouldn’t be marginalized even as the book exploits them for cheap laughs.
Sondheim said that ‘there are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals…[w]e’re not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.” The usual worshipful critics saluted Weidman and Sondhiem for positing political murderers are a product of the American political culture. “(Assassins) confronts pain in order to cauterize the decay and heal the sicknesses which lurk at the core of our society,” one typical review emoted.
The show is especially obnoxious being presented now, as so many of the political naifs in the theater community, flushed with excitement after a sniper shot up a baseball field of Congressional Republicans this summer, are drawn to the show by their not-so-secret wishes that a modern day marginalized loser will take a shot at Donald Trump. Actors and others in the performing arts, as the awards show grandstanding has, or should have, taught us, are really like John Wilkes Booth, flush with simplistic political views and more passion than expertise, their ignorance now intensified by social media echo chambers. Of course the fake history, lame pop psychology and facile Leftist anti-American agitprop of “Assassins” appeals to them.