Monday, October 7, 2013
Opinion: Assassins the musical resonates more with audiences 13 years after its debut
American perceptions in light of numerous mass shootings have changed.
No one in the American musical theater but Stephen Sondheim could have created the chorus line that greets - or should one say affronts? - the audience at the beginning and end of Assassins – Frank Rich, The New York Times, 1991
That was Mr. Rich’s opener to his review of the short-lived Off-Broadway production of Assassins. He then wrote another review on it when it returned to New York in 2004. I was doing research before my review of a production of the musical, and the startling difference between Rich’s two reviews prompted me to wonder how audiences perceived the musical’s subject matter in 1991, 2004 and then almost 10 years later in 2013.
The musical-comedy examines nine men and women – from Booth to Oswald – who murdered or attempted to murder U.S. Presidents, and whose 15 minutes of fame either placed them in history books or reduced their lives to a paragraph or two in the evening newspaper. Sondheim has written before of the illusive dreams of stardom (Gypsy), the passions of the mentally insane (Anyone Can Whistle), and of course, mass murders (Sweeney Todd). But Assassins is as original as it is surreal, disturbing in that it is alarmingly funny, but most of all, it is thought-provoking.
In his first review, Frank Rich noted that Sondheim and his collaborator, book writer John Weidman, “say the unthinkable with their musical, but in a peppy musical-comedy tone.” He went on to say that no one need argue with Sondheim’s cynical view of history and humanity to feel the musical has the potential to be extraordinary. For the most part, Assassins was widely panned for its over-mixing of historical periods, choppy scenes, collegiate humor, and regarded as Sondheim’s soapbox on American complacency. Rich ended his review with, “Assassins will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill.”
Sondheim even said he expected a backlash due to the content. “There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals ... we’re not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.” Other commentary pushed further, dramatizing the unpopular thesis that the most notorious killers in our culture are as much a product of that culture as the famous leaders they attempt to murder.
Sondheim and Weidman’s message, however, was not one that American audiences necessarily wanted to hear at the time. President George Bush had the country dangling its feet in the First (Persian) Gulf War waters – we had bombed Kuwait oil stations and a fear of terrorism was just beginning to float across our land – but it was “over there.”
His review was published on January 28, 1991. Two days later, we were at war for real. And though our invasion ended with Iraq’s acceptance of a cease-fire by the end of February, it never really ended in the minds of Americans, or in the minds of those in the Middle East.
Assassins was originally set to open on Broadway in 2001 but was postponed because of the events of September 11. Sondheim and Weidman released a statement, “Assassins is a show which asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience. In light of Tuesday’s murderous assault on our nation, and on the most fundamental things in which we all believe, we ... believe this is not an appropriate time to present a show which makes such a demand.”
A lot of evil had been going on during those 10 years. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, killing or injuring over 1,000; there was an attack at the CIA Headquarters; U.S Diplomats were killed in Pakistan; the Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 and injured over 800; the U.S. embassy in Kenya was bombed; the USS Cole was attacked, and on and on. Americans were in a state of constant mourning.
When Assassins finally opened in April, 2004, Frank Rich wrote his second review of Assassins that spoke less of the production and more of American audiences before and after the unthinkable horror came to our shores. He opened with “... if you should never yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, it’s even worse to wave a gun in a crowded theater in New York City ... when ... two-thirds of American expect a terrorist attack before the election, one-third expecting the political conventions to be a target.” After asking why it was now Broadway’s newest hit he replied, “The huge difference in response to Assassins from one war in Iraq to the next is about as empirical an indicator of the larger drift of our post-9/11 culture as can be found.” This defining statement was the topper to my questioning and my curiosity.
He also spoke of the rise of reality shows on TV, and how the musical’s characters wanted to become famous by shooting the most famous Americans of them all. While celebrity, respect, and having attention be paid is a recurrent theme in the musical, Mr. Rich did not hang Assassins’ disturbing aspects on our infatuation with celebrity alone; that would have been too easy.
I could easily go off base here, stand on my precarious soapbox and I rant on my hatred of war in any form and my abhorrence of guns and gun violence. NRA zealots twist logic, extreme video games has numbed our society to the facts of violence and an aura of acceptance infiltrates our country.
But there is power in simply stating facts. Fact: we are the most violent country in the world by an enormous margin. Facts about single victim by single assailant statistics were not available “due to the lapse in federal funding for the Office of Justice Programs,” but the shootings of Americans on American soil I’ll keep as close within the context of Assassins as possible, where each act or attempt was essentially done singularly and not by trained militia or groups of fanatics.
Between the first and second productions (1991–2004) there have been at least 26 single-assailant mass murders. More than 75 percent of the guns possessed by the killers were obtained legally. Three-quarters of the killers were white males, only one was a woman. The average age was 35, the youngest 11-years-old. A majority of the killers were mentally troubled, many displaying signs long before setting out to kill. Most of the murders took place in public areas.
I was surprised how many I’d forgotten or hadn’t known, only a few being the Luby’s massacre in Killeen, TX 1991; Lindhurst HS shooting 1992; Westside Middle School killings 1998; Columbine HS massacre 1999 (two assailants) and Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting, Fort Worth, TX 1999.
This painful list only scratches the surface of mass murders perpetrated on American citizens by lone gunmen during that time period. And mass murders are only a tiny fraction of America’s overall gun violence.
“The country is a far less comfortable and complacent place than it was in 1991,” John Weidman in 2004. He and Sondheim meant to startle their audience right from the start when everyone is invited to step up and “kill a president.” But now, Weidman added, “we all feel vulnerable. You feel anything can happen now that we’ve all become potential targets.” In the same vein that the musical’s chorus sings after JFK’s assassination, in our country, “Something Broke.”
During my research, I found myself astonished at the vision of both Weidman and Sondheim in creating a piece of theater that so accurately foresaw – and paralleled – both the depth of emotions our country would so soon be enduring and our new found American values they questioned. Guns, fame and perceived rights are things these assassins desire, and which Americans seemingly gravitate towards, but the musical neither glorifies nor sentimentalizes their actions.
So what made the musical so successful the second time around? It had survived by over a decade of word of mouth from those who’d picked up the script or cast album out of curiosity and read or listened to it ad nauseum. The theater grapevine grows fast and I’m certain it helped peak interest. However, theater audiences want to see something on stage they can relate to, something of themselves no matter how heroic or villainous. We all know theater can be cathartic but what reaction would come if the very things you see on TV, read about in the paper or online, that happen in your own city or state - the thing you fear, knowingly or unknowingly - were talked about, sung about or pointed right at you? Or instead, would audiences by then have been so numbed that this little musical-comedy became only passing entertainment.
Jump ahead 10 more years and the numbness is layered with 33 more mass shootings, 151 killings in 2012 alone. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting crushed our country, and there have been five more in 2013 so far, including the Boston Marathon bombing in April (two assailants) and the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooting, September 16.
It’s been 14 years since Columbine, gun ownership is at an all-time high, reality shows permeate TV broadcasting 24/7, the celebrity games keep on playing, video game obsession has Grand Theft Auto V selling out in most stores within hours, and the effects of media violence on the vulnerable is finally beginning to be realized. Online commentary of a review asked, “How can we line these assassins up and revile them when we walk in their shadows on a daily basis?”
I had a lengthy conversation with the director of Theatre Three’s currently restaging of Assassins, Bruce Richard Coleman. We spoke of his early interest in Assassins, the nuances of the characters, playing on the comedy of the piece and much more. We talked about the musical’s relevance to today’s audience; it’s reflection on our political and societal mores, the use of the guns in the production and our country’s obsession with them.
So, what are today’s audiences likely to think or feel about Assassins? Will they be passionate to its themes or remain numb and indifferent to the dark side of the American experience? There was an interesting and all-too telling article by Jacquielynn Floyd in The Dallas Morning News last month on how long it takes for we-as-Americans to become desensitized to the horrors of mass murder. Her theory is that is takes about a week, after the sadness, fear, questions, anger and finger-pointing subsides into acceptance. As for Assassins, I don’t know, but the answers I received from audience members at both intermission and after suggest there will be many who will take their thoughts home with them to ponder what they saw and felt a bit longer than just a week.
Our world is far too complex and varied to say I have any better answers. I started with a quote from Frank Rich in 1991 and I’ll let him have the final word from the end of his review in 2004.
“But we see so much differently now. It's almost as if the killers of Assassins, thriving 'on chaos and despair,' as one lyric has it, have been lying in wait for 13 years, preparing for just the right moment to leap out of the shadows. In this instance, there's scant cheer in observing that artists often possess the prescience that the rest of us do not.”
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