Theatre / Assassins
, with a book by John Weidman and score by Stephen Sondheim
, is, to put it simply, a revue featuring nine men and women who have killed (or attempted to kill) the President of the United States.
The show is narrated by the Balladeer, who comments on the assassins' actions and motivations. The various killers (John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, John Hinckley, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, Leon Czolgosz, Samuel Byck, and Lee Harvey Oswald) interact throughout the play, regardless of time period. Their assassination attempts are represented like a carnival game — a bell rings when they succeed, and a buzzer sounds when they fail.
The show is often seen as a dark reflection on the nebulous idea of "the American dream". The assassins are dispossessed, disenfranchised and disillusioned, but they still hold a disproportionate sense of entitlement because they are in America: the land where any
kid can grow up to be president, the land where — as the opening song puts it — "everybody's got the right to their dreams". It also takes a sideways look at gun culture in America.
Notable in that the music largely mirrors popular music from the assassins' lifetimes. And also for the HUGE amounts of Lyrical Dissonance
Not to be confused with Professional Killer
. Also not to be confused with the film of the same name
This show provides examples of:
- Affably Evil: Charles Guiteau is a jolly, optimistic guy who assassinated a president.
- A Good Way to Die: Booth and Guiteau very much believed they were martyrs and that they sacrificed themselves to save the country.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Squeaky Fromme is in love with "Charlie" Manson.
- Ambition Is Evil: The show implies that even though "everybody's got the right to their dreams", you shouldn't necessarily try to achieve them when they're impossible.
- Anachronic Order: The timeline jumps everywhere. Not counting the in-between character building scenes, the assassinations/attempts are presented in the order of Lincoln, FDR, McKinley, Reagan, Garfield, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy. Historical order was Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan—but that doesn't really fit with a proper dramatic structure.
- Lampshaded, or something like that with the ending. As pointed out, all but four of the assassins shown technically attempted (or in some cases, were adults) well after Oswald shot JFK. Booth actually uses this to convince him to go through with it.
Booth: I have seen the future, Lee. And you are it.
- Anachronism Stew: Characters from vastly different historical eras are seen interacting with each other.
- And There Was Much Rejoicing: Happens among the assassins at the end when Lee Harvey Oswald shoots JFK. The chorus... not so much.
- Anti-Villain: The play makes the assassins very sympathetic in some regards, especially Czolgosz.
- Artistic License – History: A few instances:
- Booth did not shoot himself, he was killed by one of the soldiers chasing him shooting through a hole in the barn he was inside.
- Guiteau did not ask Garfield for the Ambassador to France position in the train station, and moreover the position he wanted was "Consul to Paris"
- Moore and Fromme did not attempt to shoot Ford on the same occasion; they were about three weeks apart.
- Assassination Is The Best Solution
- Assassin Outclassin': Naturally, the targets of the failed assassinations.
- Asshole Victim: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William McKinley, and, eventually, the audience.
- Arguably, The Balladeer in the revival productions where the Assassins take him down and turn him into Oswald. He deliberately avoids granting any validity to the Assassins' claims that they're the result of the dark-side of the American dream-instead dismissing them as crazy attention-seekers and malcontents and thereby perpetuating the cycle of desperation, disillusionment, and apathy that created them in the first place.
- Bad Santa: Byck, in the sense that he isn't actually Santa Claus. Because there isn't any Santa Claus!
- Ballad of X: The Ballads of Booth, Guiteau and Czolgosz.
- Belief Makes You Stupid: The show depicts how belief in any ideology, even that of liberty, can cloud one's judgement and lead them to do things they would otherwise never have considered.
- Berserk Button: Try not to remind Leon Czolgosz of the job where he boiled his lungs, fried his skin with burning glass, watched his friends die, and got paid six cents an hour just to make some lousy bottles. And whatever you do, DON'T break one of those bottles right in front of him.
- Guiteau is a real Casanova in his attempt to seduce Moore, but when her gun goes off near his head, he flips out.
- Big Bad: John Wilkes Booth, for starting this whole mess in the first place (and, in the continuity of the play, creating Lee Harvey Oswald).
- Big "NO!": Zangara at the end of "How I Saved Roosevelt."
- Black Comedy
- Bonding Over Missing Parents: Fromme and Moore.
- Book Dumb: Arguably, Sam Byck. He is very eloquent and capable of crafting surprisingly poetic metaphors, but he doesn't understand megatonnes or holes in the ozone layer.
- Bookends: The show begins and ends with "Everybody's Got The Right".
- Breaking the Fourth Wall:
- Zangara yells at the audience during "How I Saved Roosevelt" for laughing.
- Guiteau, during "The Gun Song": "What a wonder is a gun! What a versatile invention! First of all when you've a gun... [aims gun at the front row] ...everybody pays attention!"
- During his Ballad, John Wilkes Booth stops his monologue to exasperatedly snap at the Balladeer, "Shut up!". Twice.
- The show ends with the assassins opening fire on the audience.
- Breaking Speech: Near the very end of the show. The sequence labelled November 22, 1963 is where John Wilkes Booth and company convince Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK.
- BSOD Song: "The Ballad of Guiteau", particularly Guiteau's last solo section.
- Camp Straight: Guiteau, who despite his mannerisms is still attracted to Sara Jane Moore.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Sara Jane Moore.
- Squeaky and Guiteau as well.
- Confused Bystander Interview: Half of the song "How I Saved Roosevelt" is bystanders who witnessed the attempted assassination of Roosevelt talking to the press, and inflating their own importance in the event.
- Contract on the Hitman
- Crapsack World: The show depicts America as one.
- Crazy Enough to Work: Zangara's plan to get rid of his stomach ache by assassinating the president of the United States.
- Most of the assassins' plans boil down to "I want something, killing the president will help me get it". How crazy this idea is in context varies from assassin to assassin.
- Zangara's plan worked to an extent, as in real life he refused to attempt to defend his murder charge on the grounds that the Mayor of Chicago may have died of complications or previous injuries.
- Crowd Song: "How I Saved Roosevelt".
- Curse Cut Short: In the opening:
Booth/Proprietor: Free country!
Booth: Means you don't have to sit—
Proprietor That's it!
Booth: —and put up with the sh-
Company: Everybody's got the right to some sunshine!
- The Cynic: Czolgosz.
- Dark Reprise: "Everybody's Got The Right". After the events of the show, the song gains new meaning.
- "Something Just Broke" serves a symbolic one to "How I Saved Roosevelt." In "Roosevelt," various bystanders in Florida are interviewed about the attempted assassination of FDR, bragging about their own (highly embellished) actions and making themselves sound like heroes. In "Something Just Broke," the same bystanders return...only now JFK is dead, and instead of cheerfully talking about how they saved the day, they're stunned and saddened as they speak about the precise time when they heard the news, and how they'll never be able to forget that specific moment.
- Death Is Not Permanent: Used symbolically; the assassins don't die, because their acts have made them immortal.
- Decade Dissonance: Used for effect in the score.
- Decapitated Army: Played With, Booth believes that having killed Lincoln, the Civil War can finally end.
- Despair Event Horizon: Most of the assassins have already passed this point by the time they come onstage. Lampshaded by Booth when Oswald tries to justify killing himself.
- The Ditz: Sara Jane Moore's characterization essentially boils down to this.
- Divided States of America: Booth says Lincoln "threw the 'U' out of 'USA'".
- Don't Explain the Joke: Sara Jane Moore:
Fromme: You had amnesia?
Moore: I did? (Laughs) It's a joke. See, it's like, if I had amnesia, then I couldn't remember anything, including that I had amnesia.
- Dramatic Gun Cock
"What a wonder is a gun,
What a versatile invention.
First of all, when you've a gun . . .
Everybody pays attention!"
- Driven to Suicide: John Wilkes Booth (but it doesn't stop him from being in the rest of the show).
- Dude, Where's My Reward?: The beginning of "Another National Anthem".
- Dying Alone: Booth and Zangara.
- The Eleven O'Clock Number: A dark twist on the trope with "Another National Anthem".
- "Something Just Broke," added in the 2004 revival, provides a truer example. We've spent the entire show in the company of the assassins, building up to a tremendous climax where Oswald, formerly the Balladeer, shoots and kills Kennedy... then we see its effect on ordinary American citizens, and it's devastating.
- Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Zangara, which is used to gorgeous dramatic effect in the Lee Harvey Oswald scene.
- Face Death with Dignity: Booth is the only one to do this.
- Fat Bastard: Sam Byck. So very, very much.
- Faux Affably Evil: Booth is polite and charming and very handsome. He's still a racist lowlife that murdered a president and (in the show), encourages others to do the same. Unlike, say, Guiteau, Booth's pleasantness is an act, made to serve his own ends.
- Foregone Conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald ends up killing Kennedy. Knowing this doesn't make the scene any less nail-bitingly tense.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The Balladeer gets attacked by the assassins. And, at the end of the play, the assassins point their guns at the audience and fire.
- Funny Foreigner: Subverted with Giuseppe Zangara in two ways: first, as he mentions in "How I Saved Roosevelt," he's a (naturalized) American citizen. Second, in the scene where he begs Oswald to go through with killing Kennedy, he chooses to speak Italian, with the other assassins translating for him, proving he's more eloquent in his native tongue. It's also oddly referenced with Czolgosz: according to the script, he was "born in the middle of Michigan," making him an American citizen, but he comments that he comes down in history as a "deranged immigrant." (And he still has a vaguely Eastern European accent.)
- The Ghost: Half the Presidents.
- Gilligan Cut: Guiteau's "I am a terrifying and imposing figure!" is often followed by something not terrifying or imposing.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: The Balladeer and the Proprietor serve as these to the Assassins; the former condemns their actions and dispenses The Reason You Suck Speeches, while the latter encourages their dark aspirations and even sells them the guns. The contrast is particularly clear during "Another National Anthem."
- Grief Song: "Something Just Broke", where the American people grieve for the victims of the assassinations.
- Gunman with Three Names: Lampshaded in a chilling moment between John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Booth: Why do all these rednecks have three names? James Earl Ray! John Wilkes Booth!
Oswald: Lee Harvey Oswald!
- Bonus points for that being the first time we hear Oswald's full name. (Booth has, up to this point, just called him "Lee.")
- Hands-On Approach: Guiteau gets very handsy with Sara Jane Moore while giving her shooting tips.
- Hot-Blooded: Booth and Zangara, in slightly different ways.
- Hypocrite: Booth and his associates. Besides trying to fulfill their dreams by depriving others of theirs, they fire into the audience. As Booth said, "adulters and shopkeepers get murdered" when differentiated himself and Oswald from murders. Plenty of them probably in the audience.
- "I Am" Song: "Unworthy of Your Love" is an interesting example, as it is more about Hinckley and Fromme's disturbed insecurity than about their love interests. It is essentially an "I Am" Song masquerading as an "I Want" Song.
- I Just Want to Be Loved: Booth hypothesizes this as Oswald's motivation.
Oswald: People... will hate me!
: They will hate you with a passion,
Lee. Imagine! People having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald
- Incredibly Long Note:
- "Everybody's got the right... to their dreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeams..." BANG.
- Some productions have Guiteau stretch out the "book" in "Promote the sales of my book!" for an impressively long time. Occasionally while holding up his book and trying to show it to the audience.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Moore and Hinckley.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Sara Jane Moore, by her own admission.
"I couldn't hit William Howard Taft if he was sitting on my lap."
- Or the Russian army, in Hinckley's case (lampshaded by Reagan).
- Innocent Innuendo: Guiteau and Moore:
Guiteau: Show me your form.
Guiteau: ...the way you shoot.
- Insane Equals Violent
- Insane Troll Logic: John Wilkes Booth is a master of this, being the originator of this entire sick tradition.
- After Zangara complains that nothing practical he's done has helped his stomach problems John Wilkes Booth asks if he's tried killing President Roosevelt.
Zangara: You think that help?
Booth: It couldn't hurt.
- This particular exchange between Booth and Oswald.
Oswald: I didn't come here to shoot the President!
Booth: He didn't come here to get shot.
- Interactive Narrator: The Balladeer.
- "I Want" Song: Dark version: "Everybody's Got the Right".
- Large Ham: Charlie Guiteau
- Leitmotif: Several. The biggest one being the slowed down version of "Hail to the Chief", which plays as the opening of "Everybody's Got The Right", when Emma Goldman delivers her speech, after each ballad and after Oswald has shot Kennedy.
- Another example is the "c'mere and kill a president" theme, which is heard again when the assassins are all chanting how they can "connect" in a free country, which subconsciously tells us exactly how they believe they can get around doing that.
- Lemony Narrator: The Balladeer
- Loners Are Freaks: John Hinckley.
- Love Makes You Evil: John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, as seen in "Unworthy of Your Love".
- Lyrical Dissonance: Every single song. The music invokes every kind of warm, homespun Americana you can think of, while the lyrics turn that vision of America on its head.
- Midword Rhyme: "How I Saved Roosevelt" contains a mid-letter rhyme, which when written down looks sort of like:
We'd have been left
With a gun,
You can make a state-
- Mood Whiplash:
- Guiteau's above-mentioned Breaking the Fourth Wall and Sara Jane Moore's Rummage Fail in "The Gun Song." It's heavily contrasted with the sad, somber portion of the song sung by Czolgoz about how many men are killed making a gun.
- Booth stopping his monologue about why he killed Lincoln to snap at the Balladeer to shut up.
- Byck's monologues alternate rather rapidly between psychotically insane to hilarious to sad to angry and back to hilarious again.
- In general, most of the show is much more comedic (albeit in a rather dark way) than the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald.
- Morality Ballad: The three ballads dedicated to Booth, Czolgosz, and Guiteau.
- Motive Rant: The opening of "Another National Anthem."
- Murder Ballad: The three assassins with eponymous ballads (see above) are the only three successful assassins, before Oswald in the final scene.
- Musical Pastiche: Nearly every song.
- The Music Meister: The Balladeer has elements of this. Also, to a lesser extent, the Proprietor.
- Not So Different: "Unworthy of Your Love" makes it clear that Hinckley and Fromme's situations are quite similar, even though they spend the scene prior to the song squabbling and insulting each other.
- Obsession Song: "Unworthy of Your Love", a duet between John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme about their respective obsessions, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Both sides are of the passive type.
- One Steve Limit: Averted, there are two John's (Booth and Hinckley), and two Charlie's if you count Charles Manson
- The Pollyanna: Charles J. Guiteau, who, even when waiting to be executed, is compelled to "look on the bright side".
- President Evil: Well, from some of the assassins' point of view.
- Rage Against the Author: The song "Another National Anthem" has elements of this, culminating in the Assassins running the Balladeer off the stage (in the original version) or turning him into one of them (in the revival, where he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald).
- Also, a minor reflexive example: one of Sam Byck's tirades is aimed at Leonard Bernstein and Byck angrily quotes the lyrics of West Side Story back at him. Those lyrics were, of course, written by Stephen Sondheim.
- "Reason You Suck" Speech / Rousing Speech: The Balladeer's part of "Another National Anthem" manages to be both. It can be summed up as, "Yeah, you all suck right now, but there's still a chance for you to change and be better!" Naturally, it doesn't go through.
- Reckless Gun Usage: Sara Jane Moore is written to be played with no regard for the proper operation or storage of her .38 revolver. She accidentally discharges it no less than five times during the course of the show, once while it's still in her hand bag, narrowly missing Squeaky Fromme, once into the air when she's supposed to be clicking the hammer of an unloaded weapon in "The Gun Song," once when startled with her finger prematurely on the trigger, damaging Charles Guiteau's hearing in the process, and twice during two separate scene change blackouts, with the lights coming up on her scene the second time to reveal she's just accidentally shot her own dog.
- Rummage Fail: Sara Jane Moore and the "really great gun".
- The first line the balladeer sings in "The Ballad of Guiteau" is a shout out to the American folk song "Charles Guiteau".
- Booth references the sad story of Willie Loman and compares the character to Oswald. (It's a bit of a Mind Screw: Booth is an actor, so of course he would be familiar with Salesman, if it hadn't been written 80 years after his death.)
- Sam Byck negatively quotes some of the lyrics to "America" from West Side Story, which Sondheim also wrote.
- Shown Their Work: All over the place, in subtle ways.
- Most notably, Guiteau's "Going to the Lordy" bit in his ballad is taken from lyrics the real Guiteau wrote shortly before his execution. (He read it at his execution, and had actually requested an orchestra to accompany him, but that part was nixed. He finally got one in the show.)
- Displayed in the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald, when Booth proves his supernatural nature by telling Oswald a brief version of Oswald's life story.
- Another example: a band was playing marches by John Philip Sousa at the event where Zangara made his attempt on FDR's life. Zangara's number, "How I Saved Roosevelt", features several Sousa marches woven together.
"And wasn't the band just fantastic—"
- In the "Ballad of Booth", John Wilkes Booth's dying words are that "the country is not what it was", which are taken from his final diary entry.
- In "The Ballad of Czolgosz", it gets extremely detailed about Czolgosz and the events that surrounded that day. His backstory is correct, he actually did wrap a handkerchief around his gun, and (if you look at a map of the Pan-American Exposition) they actually got the layout of the event right. Extra points for the song revolving around "working your way to the head of the line," referencing Czolgosz standing in line for the kill.
- Silly Love Songs: Expertly pastiched with "Unworthy of Your Love" (see above).
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: Moore and Byck, to a lesser extent Fromme.
- Stalker with a Crush: Hinckley and Fromme. See above.
- Smurfette Principle: A justified case—there are only two females (Fromme and Moore) among the main characters, but that's because they're the only (known) women who have attempted to assassinate a U.S. President.
- Soapbox Sadie: Fromme. She can't even have a simple chat with Sara Jane Moore without derailing into a totally serious rant about the evils of lipstick, fast food, football, etc.
- Suddenly Shouting: Byck, during his monologues, is extremely guilty of this.
- The Reason You Suck Song: The Balladeer's half of all the ballads and "Another National Anthem," mocking the gathered assassins of their aspirations, telling them they just shed a little blood each. The Balladeer is not impressed by the rhetoric of the assassins and makes that blatantly clear.
- Throw the Book at Them: During "November 22, 1963", "This is stupid. Up here on the sixth floor, what would I do? Throw school books at him?"
- Trigger Happy: All the protagonists, of course. In particular, Czolgosz, Booth, Moore, and Guiteau sing a paean to the power of guns.
- Triumphant Reprise: After Oswald shoots Kennedy, we hear a large version of the previous "Hail To The Chief" waltz theme.
- True Companions: The assassins themselves. As they say to Oswald during his song, "We're your family."
- Tyrannicide: John Wilkes Booth believes he is doing this when he kills Abraham Lincoln, comparing the situation to Julius Caesar.
"Hunt me down, smear my name. Say I did it for the fame, what I did was kill the man who killed my country! Now the Southland can end! Now this bloody war can end! Because someone slew the tyrant, just as Brutus slew the tyrant!"
- Villainous Breakdown: Guiteau at the end of "The Ballad of Guiteau" when it finally dawns on him that he's about to be hanged.
I am going to the Lordy
I am so glad
I am going to the Lordy
I am so glad
I have unified my party!
I have saved my country!
I shall be REMEMBERED!
- Villain Protagonist: Everyone except the Balladeer. Also, in the revival, the Balladeer - he turns into Lee Harvey Oswald.
- Villain Song / Villain Recruitment Song: "Everybody's Got the Right".
- The Villain Sucks Song: The aforementioned ballads.
- Interestingly, the only songs where the Balladeer outright criticizes the assassins are "Ballad Of Booth" and "Another National Anthem". In the others, he's more evenhanded, and in "Ballad Of Czolgosz", he paints a fairly sympathetic picture of Czolgosz. He still insults them more than a little, though.
- Voice Types: Surprisingly, almost the entire spectrum is represented, at least with the men.
- Fromme: Mezzo/pop Belter
- Moore: Mezzo
- Zangara: Tenor
- Balladeer: Folk tenor
- Guiteau: Tenor/high baritone
- Hinckley: Pop Baritone
- Booth: Baritone
- Czolgosz: Bass-baritone
- Proprietor: Bass
- Byck: Comic baritone
- Wham Episode: In the original off-Broadway production, there was frequently an audible gasp from the audience at the top of the final scene. After spending over an hour with the other assassins and their stories, the audience had become absorbed in them and had forgotten about the existence of Lee Harvey Oswald, until with a sudden crash they were confronted with the immediacy of the story, and the dramatization of a day many members of that 1991 audience remembered vividly.
- Wham Line:
- Most of "The Ballad of Booth" paints John Wilkes Booth as having a legitimate grievance against Abraham Lincoln. Then, near the very end of the song, he calls the President a "Nigger lover," and suddenly we realize how much of his hatred was motivated by racism.
- From "Something Just Broke": "The president's been shot..."
- Wham Shot: The Zapruder film projected onto Oswald's shirt after he shoots Kennedy.
- Who Shot JFK?: Referenced in the final scene, with the characters convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with the shooting.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Czolgosz, as least compared to the other assassins.
- You Bastard: When Zangara yells at the audience for laughing at him. It's a real Mood Whiplash moment.
- You're Insane!: Lee Harvey Oswald says this when he's told to shoot the president.
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters