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Theatre / Assassins

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Everybody's got the right to their dreams...

Hey, pal, feeling blue?
Don't know what to do?
Hey, pal, I mean you!
C'mere and kill a president!
The Proprietor, "Everybody's Got the Right"

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 the 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 the opening song puts it — "everybody's got the right to their dreams". It also takes a sideways look at capitalism and gun culture in America. Basically, imagine a musical where every song is the Villain Song.

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.
  • Alternate Show Interpretation: The original production was off-Broadway at Playwright's Horizons. The Broadway production was the first time the idea of the Balladeer turning into Lee Harvey Oswald was implemented.
  • 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 or would seriously harm others.
  • Amusement Park of Doom: The show’s primary setting is an amusement park in some sort of temporal limbo where people from all periods of American history meet, and where the Proprietor runs a shooting gallery. He mentions a Ferris wheel and some bumper cars during "Everybody’s Got The Right" when talking to Fromme and Moore, and some productions go all in on the idea (one had an actual bumper car and a disembodied clown head on stage). What qualifies for this trope is that this amusement park somehow has eight people who want to kill the President running around.
  • 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 their crimes 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, who wanted to kill McKinley in hopes of helping mistreated workers.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Invoked by Guiteau in "The Gun Song".
    Guiteau: [A gun can] remove a scoundrel, unite a party, preserve the Union, promote the sales of my book!
  • Artistic License – History:
    • 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.
    • "The Ballad of Booth" states he "died in a barn, in pain and bitter, twenty-seven years of age." Booth was actually twenty-six when he died, but he was only about two weeks off from his twenty-seventh birthday, so... close enough.
      • The play also shows Booth committing suicide by shooting himself. In reality, he was shot and killed by Union soldier Boston Corbett after trying to escape from the barn (he wasn't, contrary to the lyrics, technically in the barn when he died, either, but on the front porch of the farmhouse, where he was brought after being shot; he was paralyzed and died a few hours later). Some performances show the historical version.
    • Zangara didn't say "Pull switch!" as his execution command, but instead, "Push the button!".
      • It's implied that Zangara was executed for trying to shoot Roosevelt. While this is certainly a felony, in reality, Zangara would be educated for killing Anton Cermak. Cermak is mentioned in the play, but it is not said that he died.
    • After Byck’s second monologue, the sound of a plane taking off is heard, implying Byck managed to get it off the ground but failed to crash it into the White House. Byck never even got that far in real life- though he did board the plane, he made the mistake of shooting the pilot and killing him, leading to the plane never getting off the ground. Byck would ultimately be shot by county police officer Charles Troyer before killing himself with one of his own guns.
    • The Proprietor calls Booth a "pioneer" when he first appears, implying that he was the first man to shoot a president. While he did give others the idea that they can kill the president, as the Balladeer mentions in the following song, the first man to try to shoot a president was a delusional painter named Richard Lawrence, who attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson. His pistols both jammed, and Jackson beat him with his cane before he was arrested.
  • Assassin Outclassin': Naturally, the targets of the failed assassinations.
  • Attention Whore:
    • The crowd singers in "How I Saved Roosevelt" make it seem like they all saved the President by doing inconsequential things.
    • The Balladeer states to all the Assassins that shooting Presidents just gave them some attention rather than solving any of their problems.
  • Ax-Crazy: From the Balladeer's point of view, all the assassins. While you can definitely make a case for all of them being crazy, it's not quite that simple.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: The assassins spend most of the time in between assassination scenes drinking, hanging out, and plotting said assassinations in a bar.
  • Bad Santa: Byck is an alcoholic in a Santa suit who attempts to murder President Nixon.
  • 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 one 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, then dismiss it as "just a bottle".
    • Guiteau is a real Casanova in his attempt to seduce Moore, but when her gun goes off near his head, he flips out.
    • For Byck, it's cold hamburgers.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Booth shoots himself to avoid being killed by the Union army.
  • 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: Rivals Sweeney Todd in terms of "should I be laughing at this?" humor!
  • Blatant Lies:
    Fromme: Do you play the guitar?
    Hinkley: ...No.
    Fromme: You're playing it now!
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Averted. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, is one of the main characters, and there is a detailed examination of the cause of his radical beliefs - namely, the horrid conditions in factories encouraged by lack of governmental regulation of industry in the Gilded Age, which were the impetus for real-life anarchist activity in the time period. He comes across as the most sympathetic of the assassins, with the most understandable motivation for his actions.
  • Bonding over Missing Parents: Fromme and Moore.
  • Book Dumb: 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.
  • Book Ends: The show begins with "Everybody's Got The Right" and ends with a reprise of the same.
  • 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/Take A Look, Lee" 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.
  • The Cameo: Some productions have Arthur Bremer, Sirhan Sirhan, and James Earl Ray (the shooters of George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. respectively) appear briefly to help convince Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK.
  • Camp Straight: Guiteau, who despite his mannerisms is still attracted to Sara Jane Moore.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The show depicts capitalism and the American Dream as the true antagonistic forces of the show, being what drives all of the assassins to commit their heinous acts. Capitalism in particular drove Czolgosz to his crime and drove Zangara to his current state. Czolgosz elaborates on his view in his part of "The Gun Song", stating that many workers in the chain of production die in the process of creating consumer goods "to make the bosses richer", while Zangara blames his stomach problems on the hard labor required of a bricklayer.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Ronald Reagan cracks jokes at John Hinckley while the latter is shooting at him.
  • Church Going Villain: Former preacher Charles Guiteau, praying on his way to execution and claiming in court that God is as guilty as him.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander:
    • Sara Jane Moore.
    • Squeaky and Guiteau as well. The former is obsessed with Charles Manson and likes to rant about the supposed evils that things like lipstick and fried chicken pose to American society, and the latter plugs his book to the audience and is very cheerful about his planned assassination.
    • Byck, especially in his monologues, where he rambles about Burger King's slogan in the same breath as West Side Story.
  • 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.
  • Crapsack World: The show depicts America as one, with its various problems inspiring some of the assassins to their attempts. Special focus is given to capitalism - Czolgosz is driven to his attempt through the terrible conditions for factory workers in the Gilded Age, while Zangara is inspired by the deleterious medical effects of years of hard labor and the working class' lack of support and social mobility.
  • Crazy Enough to Work:
    • Zangara's plan to get rid of his stomach ache by assassinating the president of the United States. It did work! the sense that his pain ended with his death.
    • 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.
  • Cross-Cast Role: In the original, The Balladeer, apart from being referenced as 'boy' once by Booth, could be played as female.
  • Crowd Song: "How I Saved Roosevelt".
  • Cue Card Pause: Inverted when Squeaky Fromme reads the inscription on the back of the photo of Jodie Foster without any pauses, ending with:
    "...and the peasants will drool over us property of Columbia Pictures?"
  • 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!
  • Dark Reprise:
    • "Everybody's Got The Right". After the events of the show, the song gains new meaning.
    • "Something Just Broke" serves as 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, as Booth believes that having killed Lincoln, the Civil War can finally end. In real life, the South had already surrendered when Booth decided to kill Lincoln. However, Booth seems to believe that Lincoln was responsible for the division of the country, as opposed to the real issue of slavery.
  • Deconstruction: Of the American Dream. The assassins "dream" to kill their presidents in the land of opportunity. Additionally, much time is devoted to examining how the ethos of "work hard and you can achieve your goals and become rich" is not feasible when the socioeconomic system is corrupt and stacked against those of the lower classes.
  • Decon-Recon Switch: The show builds up sympathy for many of the Assassins by showing what horrible lives many of them had, how much they all love the American dream, and the excellent points they raise, making it seem like maybe the Assassins aren't as bad as we think they're supposed to be. Then Booth, who started it all, talks about how he's going to kill Lincoln for being a "nigger-lover" and we see the dozens of bystanders who are traumatized by the psychological damage coming from the assassination of JFK, and we're reminded that yes, while the American dream may have some flaws and many of the Presidents haven't accidentally been saints, the Assassins are still violently unhealthy maniacs, many of them are bigots, and shooting the President is not going to change anything - the fact that they're the protagonists doesn't make the Assassins not the bad guys.
    Balladeer: Yes, you made a little moment and you stirred a little mud / But it didn't fix the stomach and you've drunk your final Bud / And it didn't help the workers and it didn't heal the country / And it didn't make them listen / And they never said they're sorry."
  • 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, as she accidentally fires her gun multiple times throughout the course of the show and is very awkward during her conversation with Fromme.
  • 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.
  • Downer Ending: Four of the attempts succeed, and after the assassination of Kennedy, we see the reactions of normal Americans, knowing that the villains won.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: A comedic version.
    "What a wonder is a gun,
    What a versatile invention.
    First of all, when you've a gun...
    [cocks gun. Beat]
    Everybody pays attention!"
  • Drives Like Crazy: Byck. In response to a car horn:
    "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts!"
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: The beginning of "Another National Anthem".
  • 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 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. He gives a dramatic speech trying to convince Oswald to shoot JFK, with the other assassins translating his words.
  • Entitled Bastard: Guiteau is described as someone who never "heard the word no," which is shown by his violent rage when Moore and Garfield reject him.
  • Establishing Character Moment: All the assassins sans Czolgosz, the first to appear, get this in the opening number:
    • Hinckley is enticed by the Proprietor's comments on how he can win Jodie Foster's heart and immediately tries to cut in front of Czolgosz, insisting that he was there first.
    • Zangara enters groaning in pain from his stomach illness.
    • Guiteau responds to the Proprietor's suggestion to kill the president with a hearty, enthusiastic "Okay!"
    • Byck just kinda drunkenly wanders on-stage in a Santa suit holding a picket sign.
    • After the Proprietor makes some sexist comments about women handling guns, Fromme proceeds to pull a knife on him.
    • Moore insists upon taking a gun, but immediately proceeds to ineptly fumble with it.
    • Booth is given a dramatic, larger-than-life entrance which is announced by the Proprietor.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Zigzagged. Played straight with Czolgosz (a bass-baritone), Byck (a bass, though he doesn't sing much), and the Proprietor (a bass). Zigzagged with Booth (a baritone) and Fromme and Moore (both mezzos). Subverted entirely with Guiteau and Zangara (both tenors, though Zangara's even higher than Guiteau). Also subverted with Oswald in the 2004 version. Oswald himself only sings one line in the entire show, but the balladeer, who becomes Oswald in the 2004 version, is a tenor.
  • 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.
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: During "The Ballad of Czolgosz," several bystanders - awed by President McKinley - describe him as 'round and prosperous' as well as excitedly discussing his penchant for eating beef and collecting coins... all in front of the poor anarchist planning to kill him.
  • Fictionalized Death Account: John Wilkes Booth commits suicide when the barn is surrounded and set on fire. Some productions restore the historical version by having him shot by a Federal soldier.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald ends up killing Kennedy. Knowing this doesn't make the scene any less nail-bitingly tense. Also, Czolgosz, Guiteau, and Booth succeed in their assassination attempts, while Hinckley, Fromme, Moore, Byck, and Zangara fail.
    • This goes for the rest of the assassinations/attempts as well. Perhaps because of this, both "The Ballad of Booth" and "The Ballad of Guiteau" take place after brief dialogue scenes recounting the assassinations, while the songs themselves are about the character's backstories and ultimate fates.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The Balladeer gets attacked by the assassins in "Another National Anthem", and is either driven off the stage (off-Broadway version) or transformed into Lee Harvey Oswald (Broadway version). Also, in some productions, at the end of the play, the assassins point their guns at the audience and fire.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Each of the assassins go from average, down-trodden American citizens to President killers.
  • 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,"note  making him an American citizen, but he bitterly comments that he comes down in history as a "deranged immigrant" in "Another National Anthem". (And he still has a vaguely Eastern European accent, possibly because in Real Life he was the only member of his immediate family born in the United States, and they lived in at least one Polish enclave during his childhood.)
  • The Ghost: Half the Presidents. In some productions, they are represented by the Proprietor donning an outfit, but it is very rare to see someone actually cast as any of them.
  • 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 their guns. The contrast is particularly clear during "Another National Anthem."
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Proprietor encourages all of the assassins to assassinate their respective presidents by saying that it will solve all of their problems.
  • 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.
  • Historical Domain Character: All of the assassins are real historical figures who attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States.
  • Hot-Blooded: Booth and Zangara, in slightly different ways. Booth makes a lot of dramatic speeches, while Zangara yells at anyone or anything that bothers him.
  • Hypocrite: Booth and his associates. Besides trying to fulfill their dreams by depriving others of theirs, they fire into the audience, at least in some productions. As Booth said, "adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered" when differentiating himself and Oswald from murderers. 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 hypothesises this as Oswald's motivation.
    Oswald: People... will hate me!
    Booth: They will hate you with a passion, Lee. Imagine! People having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • 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).
  • Incredibly Long Note:
    • "Everybody's got the right... to their dreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeams..."
    • 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. as well as Fromme to some extent.
  • Inn Between the Worlds: A variant. The framing device for the musical involves two locations, an Amusement Park of Doom and a Bad-Guy Bar, each of which exists in a sort of temporal limbo where characters from vastly different time periods are able to interact, and, as seen in the final scenes of the musical, even travel into other time periods.
  • Innocent Innuendo: Guiteau and Moore:
    Guiteau: Show me your form.
    Moore: WHAT?
    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.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Lee Harvey Oswald was about to kill himself before Booth and the others convinced him to shoot the President instead.
  • "I Want" Song: Dark version: "Everybody's Got the Right", where the assassins sing that everyone has the right to follow their dreams. It just so happens that their dreams involve assassinating presidents.
  • Large Ham: Guiteau is very loud and cheerful about pretty much everything he does.
  • Leitmotif:
    • Several. The biggest one being the slowed-down version of "Hail to the Chief", which plays at the opening of "Everybody's Got The Right," immediately before Booth assassinates Lincoln, 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 to doing that.
  • Lemony Narrator: The Balladeer often injects his own views into the songs.
  • Loners Are Freaks: John Hinckley.
  • Love Makes You Evil:
    • John Hinckley Jr. and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, as seen in "Unworthy of Your Love" - both want to assassinate their respective presidents because they believe the target of their obsessions will appreciate it.
    • To a lesser extent, Czolgosz. He had an unreciprocated crush on Emma Goldman, who gave him the idea of becoming an anarchist.
  • 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.
    • Special mention goes out to a variation on “Hail to the Chief” being used in the opening and closing numbers. “How I Saved Roosevelt” is essentially lyrics set to “The Washington Post March” and “El Capitan”.
  • Manipulative Bastard: John Wilkes Booth personally convinces Zangara, Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Presidents.
  • Meaningful Echo: Booth repeats his "squeeze your little finger" line from "The Gun Song" when he convinces Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot John F. Kennedy.
  • Midword Rhyme: "How I Saved Roosevelt" contains a mid-letter rhyme, which when written down looks sort of like:
    We'd have been left
    Of F
    • From "The Gun Song":
    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, sombre 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, who's been mocking him throughout the ballad, 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 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.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: At least, if you ask our protagonists and the Proprietor. The Balladeer's part of "Another National Anthem" is smashing this trope to pieces. The assassins don't listen to him.
  • The Music Meister: The Balladeer has elements of this. Also, to a lesser extent, the Proprietor.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: As the Balladeer points out, thanks to Booth, Abraham Lincoln went from a divisive figure to being considered one of America's greatest Presidents.
  • 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 Johns (Booth and Hinckley), and two Charlies if you count Charles Manson.
  • Passing the Torch: In some productions, the show ends with the assassins ceremoniously handing their guns down to the extras to carry on the tradition, just as the reprise of "Everybody's Got the Right" reaches its crescendo.
  • Pastiche: Nearly every song is a homage to a different American musical style like patriotic marches and '80s pop.
  • Pet the Dog: Czolgsoz carrying Emma Goldman's bag for her.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Proprietor does a Funny Foreigner impression of Zangara's accent, and displays a Stay in the Kitchen attitude towards Lynette and Sara Jane.
  • The Pollyanna: Charles J. Guiteau, who, even when waiting to be executed, is compelled to "look on the bright side".
  • Predecessor Villain: John Wilkes Booth, who paved the way for the other assassins.
  • The Presents Were Never from Santa: Byck's motivation, literally and figuratively.
  • President Evil: Well, from some of the assassins' point of view. Czolgosz and Zangara believe that their respective presidents are responsible, in some way or another, for the systemic problems of American laissez-faire capitalism.
  • 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 (specifically, the song "America") 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 work.
  • 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 handbag, narrowly missing Lynette "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.
    Sara Jane: Shit, I shot it!
  • Rummage Fail: Sara Jane Moore attempts to pull out a "really great gun" in "The Gun Song", but pulls out a shoe on her first attempt.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: Any song containing the word "Ballad" in its title.
  • 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.)
    • 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.)
    • Displayed in the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald, when Booth proves his supernatural nature by telling Oswald a brief version of the latter'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—"
      • Zangara really did think about killing Herbert Hoover, but when he learned that president-elect FDR was coming to Miami, where Zangara lived at the time, he decided to shoot FDR instead. Just as he says in the play, it was winter when he was planning to assassinate Hoover, and he believed that cold weather aggravated his stomach problems, so he didn't want to go to Washington.
    • 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.
      • When the Proprietor offers Czolgosz a gun, he lists off the specs, including the company that made it, the caliber, the fact that the handle is rubber, and that there are owls stamped onto the sides. All of this is accurate to the actual gun Czolgosz used.
    • All of the jokes Ronald Reagan makes at Hinckley are jokes he said in real life about the assassination, except for the "there you go again" line, which was a jab used at Jimmy Carter during debates.
    • Guiteau's angry reaction to Moore rejecting his advances reflects on his real-life Domestic Abuse of his wife.
    • At least one production replaced Booth's suicide with his real-life death at the hands of Union soldier Boston Corbett.
  • "Shut Up!" Gunshot: Not intentional, but Moore silences the entire cast and stops the song when she accidentally fires into the roof during "The Gun Song".
  • Silly Love Songs: Expertly pastiched with "Unworthy of Your Love" (see above).
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Moore and Byck, and to a lesser extent Fromme.
  • Smurfette Principle: A justified case—there are only two women (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.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Hinckley and Fromme. See above.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Byck, during his monologues, is extremely guilty of this.
  • Throw the Book at Them: During "November 22, 1963", Oswald asks Booth, "This is stupid. Up here on the sixth floor, what would I do? Throw school books at him?"
  • Time Travel: Kind of. In one of the last scenes of the show, Lee Harvey Oswald is visited by John Wilkes Booth, who is later joined by all of the other assassins (from both before and after 1963), encouraging Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy. It is unclear how exactly any of these historical figures ended up in 1963, or even if they're actually there at all.
  • Totally Radical: Sara Jane Moore attempts to bond with Lynette Fromme by using terms like "groovy" and "psychedelic". Fromme comments that she sounds like a narc.
  • Tragic Dream: All the Assassins have one of these.
  • 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."
  • Two Girls to a Team: Fromme and Moore are the only two female assassins in the group. Fitting, since they were also the only two women in history to try to kill an American President.
  • 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 mend! Now this bloody war can end! Because someone slew the tyrant, just as Brutus slew the tyrant!"
  • Villain Love Song: "Unworthy of Your Love" is unique in that the two singers (Hinckley and Fromme) are not singing to each other but to different people entirely - (Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively).
  • Villain Protagonist: Everyone except the Balladeer. Also, in the revival, the Balladeer - he is turned into into Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • Villain Recruitment Song:
    • "Everybody's Got the Right".
    • The musical bits of "November 22, 1963", in which the assassins convince Lee Harvey Oswald to kill Kennedy.
  • Villain Song: Several songs qualify:
    • "Everybody's Got the Right" for the Proprietor (and, to a lesser extent, the assassins)
    • Booth's parts of "The Ballad of Booth".
    • Zangara's parts in "How I Saved Roosevelt".
    • "Unworthy of Your Love" for Hinckley and Fromme.
    • "Another National Anthem" for the assassins collectively.
    • Though it's mostly a scene of dialogue, there are a few sung bits at the end of "November 22, 1963" that could be considered a villain song for the assassins collectively.
    • "Everybody's Got the Right (Reprise)" for the assassins collectively.
    • "The Gun Song" does not count because, though sung by the assassins and alluding to their planned crimes, they don't talk about their specific plans or their motivations. They just marvel at the power of the gun as an invention in a way that's... kind of a borderline case, but doesn't quite reach the threshold.
    • "The Ballad of Czolgosz" does not count because it is not sung by Czolgosz, and the Balladeer is opposed to Czolgosz's actions, making it a "The Villain Sucks" Song.
    • "The Ballad of Guiteau" does not count because Guiteau's parts are not about his crime or his motivations, they're just about his personal philosophy and his mental and spiritual preparation for his own execution.
  • "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.
  • Villainous Advice Song: "Everybody's Got the Right." Okay, none of the assassins are "heroes," exactly, but the song is what convinces them to actually kill their respective presidents.
  • 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!
    • Zangara becomes increasingly unhinged over the course of "How I Killed Roosevelt":
    Zangara have nothing
    No luck, no girl
    Zangara no smart, no school
    But Zangara no foreign tool
    Zangara American!
    American nothing!
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Czolgosz, at least compared to the other assassins. He truly wanted to help others with McKinley's death.
  • 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..."
    • Depending on the version, either of the two lines where Lee's full name is first stated. Just in case there was anyone in the audience who was left in any doubt as to who he was before then.
    • It's downplayed since anyone going in must now the premise, but this also pops up in the very beginning. After the Proprietor smoothly croons, drawing in Czolgosz, he bluntly tells him "Come here and kill a President!", which lets us know exactly what kind of show we're watching.
  • Wham Shot: The Zapruder film is projected onto Oswald's shirt after he shoots Kennedy.
  • What Have We Ear?: Gerald Ford does this when he's helping Fromme and Moore pick up a bunch of bullets they had just dropped.
  • Who Shot JFK?: Referenced in the final scene, with the characters convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with the shooting.
    Booth: Fifty years from now they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, or the mafia, or some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence, but this, right here, right now, this is the real conspiracy.
  • Wicked Cultured: Booth, the former actor, is described as this.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist:
    • The Balladeer. He believes that the American dream is fundamentally attainable and fundamentally good, a point generally refuted by the show.
    • Guiteau is a Darker and Edgier take on this concept. He is also seen to place a certain amount of blind faith in America and its government and believes that you can achieve anything you want in life if you try hard enough.
  • Would Hurt a Child: At one point, Moore points her gun at her son to get him to stop bothering her for money to buy ice cream.
  • You Bastard!: When Zangara yells "No laugh! No funny!" at the audience. Even the music stops.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Zigzagged and Downplayed On the one hand, the assassins' motives are mostly sympathetic, and the power structure put in place is depicted as corrupt. On the other hand, their actions are condemned and the show ultimately suggests that peaceful, democratic transition is the best way to change a bad system, not acts of political violence.
  • You're Insane!: Lee Harvey Oswald says this when he's told to shoot the president. The person he's talking to really doesn't care, responding "Maybe I am. So what?"