“There is such a thing as pleasurable learning, cheerful and militant learning.” -- Bertolt Brecht

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” -- Carl Jung

“They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose.” -- Steely Dan

Stephen Sondheim wouldn’t necessarily ally himself with Bertolt Brecht -- as an artist, his work is psychological where Brecht’s is political -- but the two artists share a couple of important ideas about theater. One is that it’s an art form that thrives on overturning expectations, and the other is that the audience’s job it is to complete the play with its own thoughtful response, not simply to nod and agree and swallow it whole. Easier said than done!

Brecht, who influenced virtually all modern theater that departs from kitchen-sink naturalism, was a big champion of theater as a forum for instruction. To him, instruction meant not telling people what to think (although as a Marxist, he definitely had his own values to promote) but challenging audiences to figure out how to think. His fantasy was that critical thinking -- that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now -- acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. He believed critical thinking could best be fostered by putting the incidents of a play through a process of alienation. By alienation, he meant turning the familiar into something strange or vice versa, “the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.” Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment. 

In a long career not noted for its timidity, Sondheim hit a new level of audacity with Assassins, his 1991 collaboration with book writer John Weidman. The musical raises interesting questions: are presidential assassinations a manifestation of America’s love/hate affair with guns, power, and violence? Or are they acts of violence by lone psychotics who represent some aberrant striving common to all Americans -- for attention, celebrity, and media coverage? Sondheim and Weidman explore these questions in a dark, surreal dreamscape that ends with half a dozen historical presidential assassins circling a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald and urging him to turn the gun away from himself to the presidential motorcade passing through Dallas, thereby redeeming their tribe of embittered losers. 

This is not the usual stuff of Broadway musicals, but then Sondheim and his various collaborators have spent several decades now creating shows that buck the traditional conception of musical theater as the province of lightweight song-and-dance spectacles. Assassins has acquired a reputation for being too dangerous to produce on Broadway that may be somewhat inflated. The original Off-Broadway production sold out every performance, despite mixed reviews and opening in the midst of the Gulf War. That it didn’t immediately move to Broadway says more about the timidity of commercial producers than about the content of the show. True, it focuses on nine people who killed or tried to kill American presidents. Although the musical portrays them as human beings rather than alien monsters, it doesn’t ask us to sympathize with them or forgive them. It’s certainly no harder to take than Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s musical about a barber who slits the throats of his customers and his neighbor who bakes their ground-up bodies into best-selling pies. That show ran for a year and a half on Broadway and won all the awards that season. 

The perception of Assassins as too dangerous for Broadway audiences also has something to do with its jaunty, irreverent comic tone. The Roundabout Theater Company’s revival was originally scheduled for the fall of 2001 and cancelled after the events of 9/11. The authors issued a statement acknowledging that the show “asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience” and that “this is not an appropriate time to present a show that makes such a demand.” This was tactful on their part, although it could also be argued that there was never a time when we more urgently needed to understand the mentality that leads to such acts of world-changing destruction. 

American life in the last decade has had no shortage of tragic events exposing the same problems of guns and violence that Assassins addresses. Yet during the same period the tabloid-fueled cult of celebrity and the circus-like media coverage of famous people (including those accused of crimes) has gotten more and more out of hand. We’ve gotten used to seeing sacred cows satirized on Saturday Night Live or in National Lampoon magazine (of which Weidman is a former editor). As the late Quentin Crisp once advised, “If you do something terrible, go on television and talk about it. Then people will cross the street to tell you they saw you on TV.”

What makes Assassins genuinely challenging, even creepy, is that it stirs up all sorts of provocative questions without providing any answers. It specifically declines to offer the audience the soothing safety of a moral conclusion to either accept or reject. It’s up to us to sort out what we think about the conundrums it raises -- the ever blurrier line between power and publicity, for instance, or the connection between the constitutional right to bear arms and the easy access to handguns that allows high-school kids to go on shooting sprees. When the beguiling opening number features a carnival barker crooning the seductively optimistic sentiment, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy…everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” he seems to be doing nothing more than restating the values at the heart of America, land of the free and home of the brave. But do we really agree with him? Isn’t that the same guy who just suggested to a passerby, “C’mere and kill a president”?

In some ways, Assassins is the continuation of an inquiry that Sondheim and Weidman began with their first musical-theater collaboration, Pacific Overtures (1976). The historical event on which that show pivots is the signing of the treaty opening trade relations between Japan and the West in 1853. But the song that covers that part of the story (“Someone in a Tree”) is sung not by the men who signed the treaty -- the Emperor of Japan and Commodore Perry -- but by a ten-year-old boy who saw everything from a tree outside the treaty house but heard nothing and a warrior hidden beneath the floorboards who heard everything and saw nothing. Both Pacific Overtures and Assassins ask, “Who gets to tell the story? What doubts and ambiguities, ugly truths and indigestible contradictions get smoothed over in the retelling? What voices does the official history leave out?”

Assassins does have a narrator of sorts, the character of The Balladeer, but he plays a highly ambiguous role in the show. On one level he gives the audience someone to identify with who is not an assassin, and his optimistic folk-based songs represent the received wisdom of history, simplified for the masses. Disconcertingly, the other characters drive him offstage two-thirds of the way through the play. Is that because he’s too much of a conscience or a reality check, forcing them to consider whether their acts accomplished what they were intended to do? Or is it because his sunny platitudes made no room for the discontent, disillusionment, and political outrage that seethes in the hearts of those who feel left out of the American dream? Sondheim and Weidman aren’t telling. It’s up to you to decide.

Front and Center, March-April 2004