Revisiting Sondheim’s “Assassins” in a Post-January 6 World

After Stephen Sondheim passed away in November, I decided to re-listen to my favorite work of his, which I hadn’t listened to in years. Assassins, one of his lesser-known musicals from 1990 that analyzes the lives of nine successful and would-be assassins of American presidents, has always been haunting, since it is inherently a show about very dark moments in history. And yet, this time it felt even more terrifying, as the decades-old lyrics made me reflect on last year’s insurrection at the Capitol. In a post-January 6 world, Assassins feels like a warning that America did not heed.

Assassins doesn’t really have a plot. Rather, it utilizes a vaudevillian structure and a vague carnival-game metaphor to do a character study of four American presidential assassins and five people who attempted such an act. And while the characters themselves are very much rooted in fact, there is a surrealist aspect to the whole thing that allows these people to talk to each other across time and space. It is both dark and darkly funny, and (in my humble opinion) has one of the best scripts ever written for a musical.

Sondheim stated that he considers Assassins his only perfect work, and yet, it’s always remained a deep cut. That may because, as some critics have argued, there is never a “good” time to put on a show about presidential assassinations. The public is either too patriotic to hear of it, or too distressed to want such a reflection on America.

As Weidman said:

“Why do these dreadful events happen here, with such horrifying frequency, and in such appallingly similar fashion? Assassins suggests it is because we live in a country whose most cherished national myths, at least as currently propagated, encourage us to believe that in America our dreams not only can come true, but should come true, and that if they don’t someone or something is to blame.”

This American ideal is embodied in the Balladeer, who acts as the show’s narrator and is constantly pushing towards these people the idea that if they simply work hard and maintain hope that they too can succeed in America. “In the USA, you can have your say / You can set your goals and seize the day / You’re given the freedom to work your way to the head of the line,” he sings in one number. The assassins, though, have given up on that idea. “There’s another national anthem playing / not the one you cheer in the ballpark,” they spit back in one of the show’s most terrifying numbers. “It says ‘bullshit’ / It says ‘never’ / It says ‘sorry’ loud and clear.”

I’ve listened to that song dozens of times, and it has always managed to send shivers down my spine. Now, it feels even more terrifying. “People listen / They may not want to hear it but they listen / once they think it’s gonna stop the game / No, they may not understand all the words / All the same, they hear the music / They hear the screams.” Their level of anger and resentment towards the entire idea of America is overwhelming, and in the song’s climax, as they all come together to turn on the narrator and his hopeless American idealism, the whole show unlocks itself. While these people may have been individual actors in their violence, their resentment is not isolated. It is part of a larger movement of Americans who feel the country has left them behind, and are looking for someone to blame.

In an essay for FiveThirtyEight yesterday, Maggie Koerth noted that many people fail to understand the root beliefs that led to the insurrection. It was not simply right-wing extremism, but rather an anti-establishment ideology that was mobilized on January 6. “Income inequality, racial resentment, declining trust in institutions — those were the really dangerous things,” she said. Trump spent years tapping into this general resentment and giving it enemies who could be blamed ⁠ — immigrants, Democrats, virtually anyone who stood in his way.

Koerth goes on:

“Even more concerning is the fact that anti-establishment ideologies don’t vanish or become irrelevant when we don’t look at them. The beliefs are there, waiting for someone to pick up and use. A politician could come along and harness anti-establishment ideologues into his or her political caucus. That politician could then convince those Americans that they are the only trustworthy part of the political world. And that politician could convince Americans with an anti-establishment ideology to fight for him or her.”

The fear that someone may harness general anger and resentment for personal violence is embodied in the show’s climactic scene ⁠ — perhaps one of the greatest scenes ever written for musical theatre ⁠ — in which John Wilkes Booth personally convinces Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK. “All your life you’ve been a victim, Lee,” Booth says. “A victim of indifference and neglect. Of your mother’s scorn, your wife’s contempt, of Soviet stupidity, American injustice. You’ve finally had enough.”

Notably, Oswald is usually portrayed by the same actor who plays the Balladeer. As such, Oswald ends up representing the “average” American, and the scene shows how anyone’s personal resentment can be tapped into for political violence. Indeed, January 6 proved that to be the case.

I am not the first person to make the connection between Assassins and the events of January 6, 2021, nor will I likely be the last. (In fact, a recent revival makes the connection very clear to its audiences.) Revisiting the cast recording, though, has given me a framework to better understand the cultural and political context that led to that day. It’s admittedly disturbing to hold such a mirror up to society, but that’s what makes Assassins so effective, and so necessary.

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writer/critic about politics, arts, and culture / also technically an award-winning comedy writer / @jhcansler

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Jakob Cansler

Jakob Cansler

writer/critic about politics, arts, and culture / also technically an award-winning comedy writer / @jhcansler

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