This bold musical depicts the dark side of the American Dream and reflects the work yet to be done to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
“I did it to bring down the government of Abraham Lincoln and to avenge the ravaged South…”
“I did it to prove to her my everlasting love…”
“I did it because no one cared about the poor man’s pain…”
“I did it to make people listen…”
These are the thoughts of John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, Jr., Leon Czolgosz and Sam Byck, as expressed through the creative genius of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman in the musical dramedy Assassins.
This American masterpiece in no way justifies the acts of Presidential assassins, successful or not. But it does attempt to get inside the heads of nine of the men and women who, for reasons they believed they were entirely justified, felt the only way they could be heard or make a difference was to kill the President of the United States.
In the words of Ryan Moore, Associate Director for a new production of Assassins opening September 9 at Avon Players in Rochester Hills, Mich.:
In ‘Assassins,’ nine figures from history who attempted — some successfully and others not — to kill the President of the United States, occupy a limbo-like carnival ground in which they relive their crimes and engage in historically impossible interactions across time and space. … Through Sondheim’s signature blend of intelligent lyrics and haunting music and John Weidman’s often darkly comic script, ‘Assassins’ explores the psychology and motivations of these men and women, which range from twisted political ideology to personal frustration to unadulterated glory-seeking, and dissects our nation’s culture of celebrity. Some of the characters, for instance John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, are household names, while others are relegated to the periphery of history. Yet all are driven to harrowing acts in pursuit of their own perverse view of the American Dream.
Sondheim and Weidman cunningly use the facts of history to bring dark truths about humanity to light. As Sondheim himself has said, the show is about “The rage of the impotent.” What do people do when they feel they have no other choice? And what makes some people express murderous fury while others are able to find a more productive outlet for their frustrations?
I’ve always thought Assassins is about what happens when our country’s citizens feel the American Dream is not within their grasp. How do they respond? How do they find their place in a country where their plight is overlooked or even disparaged? In the words of Emma Goldman, who appears in the show, “What does a man do?”
It’s those questions that have drawn me to this show ever since I first heard it in the 1990s. And that’s what motivated me to audition for this production of Assassins, in which I play Sara Jane Moore, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. I played the role once before, in 2010, and I thought it was chillingly meaningful then, when anti-government sentiment felt like it was at a tipping point. I think the show is even more relevant and powerful today, at this time in our history when anger, vitriol and violence seem to be running rampant.
There have always been people like these men and women — the oppressed, the downtrodden, the unsuccessful, the lost, the disenfranchised, the despairing. But in the years since I first heard Assassins, the voices of Americans like these seem to keep getting louder. Maybe it’s the 24-hour news cycle or the rise of social media or a disturbing shift in our country’s attitudes, but I can’t remember a time when the frustration, fury and ferocity of humanity felt so close to the surface.
I’m not here to tell people what to think about Assassins. The authors have explicitly said they left the show open-ended — they don’t take a position on gun culture or anything else — because they want people to make up their own minds. Their hope is that people will see the show and feel upset, angry and even outraged enough to go home and have a conversation about what they’ve witnessed and experienced. Sondheim and Weidman are deliberately provocative in telling the stories of the nine men and women they profile, because they want to motivate people to think for themselves. Don’t assume for a moment that the show isn’t entertaining — it’s full of exquisite music, brilliant storytelling and plenty of humor, albeit quite dark. But those elements are used to powerful effect.
So I won’t tell you what to think about Assassins, but I will say this: I think it’s vitally important for Americans to consider what can drive people to such horrifying acts. None of the people profiled in this show were particularly remarkable, other than John Wilkes Booth, who was a well-known actor before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. In fact, most of them were unsuccessful and unfulfilled, seeking to justify their existence or find the attention they craved through one desperate, dramatic act.
We need to pay attention to people like this before they go to extremes. We must address the injustice in our society, the cracks in our social safety net that allow people to suffer the ravages of poverty and despair, our woefully lacking mental health system that allows deeply troubled people like these to go without the care they need. If we connected with each other and cared for one another a bit more, perhaps people wouldn’t feel compelled to take such vicious action.
When I become frustrated about America, I find positive ways to take action. Auditioning for Assassins is one example. After the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I felt helpless and distraught about violence in our country. The opportunity to make “an artistic statement,” as one friend put it, felt like a productive response.
But there are others who may feel pushed to take destructive action instead. Sara Jane Moore, for example, said at her sentencing hearing that she was not sorry she’d tried to assassinate President Ford because “it seemed like a correct expression of my anger.”
I can’t imagine ever taking the action Sara Jane Moore did. But I can understand feeling strongly about the present and future of America. I can appreciate that people on the other side of the aisle from me politically feel just as passionate about their beliefs. The difference is this: Most of us would never act on it in a violent way.
Assassins reveals what was in the hearts and minds of these nine men and women, or what the authors have imagined based on what we know about them. As characters, they may not be drawn with sympathy but they are painted with empathy for the plight of those who feel disconnected from the promise of America.
I hope you’ll find the time to come see our production, which I’m very proud to be part of. Every member of the team — onstage and off — is as committed to this production as I am, although I can’t speak for their motivations for being part of it. But you will walk away feeling entertained and maybe just a little bit outraged, and hopefully eager to discuss what you’ve witnessed. If that’s your response, we’ve done our job.
Assassins will be presented September 9-24 at Avon Players in Rochester Hills, Mich. Get all the details and order tickets HERE.
[Photo credit: Bryan Clifford, courtesy of Avon Players.]