Second Shots

Sondheim and Weidman hail the chief-killers; Larry Kramer uses rant to fight the plague

Thirteen years later, Assassins is still a puzzle to me, a musical without discernible purpose, like a concept album someone's decided to stage, for no good reason except that some of the songs are extremely well written. The idea that scrutinizing the lives of our presidents' killers and would-be killers might teach us something about America seems to lurk behind the show, never really becoming part of its substance. The script reiterates the notion that chief-stalkers do it to become famous, which gives ample opportunity for the showbiz flamboyance of Sondheim's snazzier numbers, but this premise is contradicted by Weidman's version of these historical figures: They did it out of resentment at not getting a job, or to dramatize the plight of the workingman, or because they had stomach pains. Along with the showbiz motive, we get a standard showbiz gesture in the work's implication that pre-Oswald assassins somehow had more class, while those who came after (Hinckley, Samuel Byck, Squeaky Fromme) were merely inept buffoons. (Though Byck's dream of crashing a 747 into the Nixon White House resonates interestingly against the current administration's insistence, before the 9-11 Commission, that no one could have anticipated such a thing.) The image of America's quality of life in decline matches that in other Sondheim works dedicated to bemoaning the tarnish on our glamorous past—"Liaisons," Follies, even Pacific Overtures. But would turning out classier assassins really improve American life?

There are of course ways to improve life in a democracy—voting, organizing, educating—but Sondheim and Weidman provide only the briefest glimpse of the far vaster number of Americans who don't assassinate anybody, but who do collect signatures on petitions, flood the streets at protest demonstrations, and go to the polls. The Roundabout's new production, Assassins' Broadway premiere, offers a new song (written for a 1992 London production), "Something Just Broke," that purports to convey the public reaction to JFK's assassination. Not up to the better items in Sondheim's score, it oddly weakens both the show's forward drive and such point of view as the work supplies. If we're to have any sympathy for these devils, it's wiser not to show us how their victims feel. And when a president's assassinated, the public is the victim: The figure lying dead is a vital organ of the body politic as well as a person.

So why, given what a problematic work Assassins is, has it now found the approbation it didn't get in 1991? The cause can't be Joe Mantello's production, which is far from an improvement over the original. Gaudy, flat, and tinny-sounding, it tends to shove the material at you without much regard for tone, conveying a constant, frenetic undercurrent of anxiety about the show's ability to go over in the cold, lofty, unwelcoming space of Studio 54. The cast ranges from mediocre to pretty good, well below the original in almost every role, with two exceptions: Denis O'Hare, with a cheerfully delusional swagger, makes the preposterous Guiteau humanly believable, while James Barbour endows Czolgosz with both pathos and vocal beauty. Mantello does use the endless steps of Robert Brill's mountainous set effectively to solve the one scene that fell flat originally, Guiteau's dance to the gallows. But this is his sole victory.

Sondheim's Assassins: A killer line
photo: Joan Marcus
Sondheim's Assassins: A killer line

What's changed that now helps validate Assassins isn't art but our national political climate. The grievance-nursing mentality of psychopaths who shoot presidents now belongs to the party that runs the country; the assassins have, so to speak, moved into the White House. Only today's unforgiving bullies, far from the have-nots and failures who make up Assassins' character list, are the haves, the people who've benefited most from the opportunities America offered, and are now busily hauling the economic ladder up behind them to keep others down. They've shaped this world, yet they're as angry and unhappy about it as any ranting Byck or ulcerated Zangara; their misguided solution is to stand behind a fraudulent president and take aim directly at the body politic, wounding in the process even the fabric of life itself. Today the Republican Party is nothing but a worthless collection of Dylan Klebolds, and some good therapist should take them in hand before it's too late for the rest of us here at Columbine High. Their temporary dominance clarifies both Assassins' current success and its perturbing hollowness: The real convocation of America-killers will not be at a shooting gallery, but this coming August when the GOP meets in Madison Square Garden.

Homosexuals are among the Republicans' targeted enemies, the protestations of our Log Cabin judenrat notwithstanding, so a revival of Larry Kramer's 1987 AIDS melodrama, The Normal Heart, comes at a good time. I use the word melodrama in its best sense: This is a play in which all the emotions are broadly signaled, in order to rouse passions over a clearly defined issue. If the script has both a self-serving side and a fondness for oversimplification (plus an excessive reliance on tantrummy prop-throwing), it's already done noble service, both against AIDS and on behalf of the First Amendment—regional and college productions have sparked unending censorship battles—for which Kramer deserves full credit. Some of the revival's acting is slightly below par, but David Esbjornson's direction eschews all overindulgence, while Raúl Esparza finds both nuance and wistfulness inside the hero's marathon rants.

 
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