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 (including John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, John Hinckley, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Leon Czolgosz) 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:
Acting for Two: In the 2004 revival, the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald were played by the same actor. Many productions since have followed suit.
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.
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.
Anachronism Stew: Characters from vastly different historical eras are seen interacting with each other.
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 "NO!": Zangara at the end of "How I Saved Roosevelt."
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.
Cry for the Devil: The three ballads are used effectively in this way, but the one that seems to get the audience's sympathy most is "The Ballad of Czolgosz", where assassin Leon Czolgosz's motivations are stated clearly: he was a lonely man, who all throughout his life had lived in poverty and misery for reasons beyond his control, so he killed big business president Bill McKinley to "take control of his fate".
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."
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.
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 Sarah 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.
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.
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.
The current licensed score has him singing in two songs, however. Emma Goldman and Lee Harvey Oswald are more clear-cut examples.
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.
Reckless Gun Usage: Sarah 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.
Shout-Out: 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.)
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.
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.
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."
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 beREMEMBERED!
Villain Protagonist: Everyone except the Balladeer. Also, in the revival, the Balladeer - he turns into Lee Harvey Oswald.
Voice Types: Surprisingly, almost the entire spectrum is represented, at least with the men.
Fromme: Mezzo/pop Belter
Sarah Jane Moore: Mezzo
Balladeer: Folk tenor
Guiteau: Tenor/high baritone
Hinckley: Pop Baritone
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.
Who Shot JFK?: Referenced in the final scene, with the characters convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with the shooting.