What a wonder is a gun
What a versatile invention
First of all, when you’ve a gun
Everybody pays attention
When you think what must be done
When you think what it can do:
Remove a scoundrel,
Unite a party,
Preserve the union,
Promote the sales of my book,
Insure my future,
My niche in history,
And then the world will see
That I am not a man to overlook
— Stephen Sondheim, Assassins (1990)
No, these words weren’t written for Kyle Rittenhouse. Or the Proud Boys. Or the Oath Keepers. They were written thirty years ago, to be sung onstage by an actor playing Charles Guiteau, the guy who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881.
Stephen Sondheim has left us, and it doesn’t seem fair. Given all the public figures we can happily do without, we might have been spared losing someone so irreplaceable. In a year filled with bad news, this is in a special category, leaving as it does a gaping hole in the culture.
That said, it couldn’t be more eerily fitting that Assassins, his most eccentric work — in a career replete with magnificently eccentric works — is playing Off Broadway right now. At this moment in history.
I saw it. I flew to New York specifically for this production, which had been postponed over a year. It’s the first major production of a Sondheim musical since the pandemic began. And I think it’s the last one he ever attended.
Assassins is amazing in many ways. But as a comment on our fraught political climate — as a harbinger, not of things to come, but of things already here — it’s a freaking miracle.
Its premise is audacious. It brings together all nine of the warped individuals who have killed, or attempted to kill, a U.S. president.
They all have their singular motives and rationales — religious zealotry, political extremism, social awkwardness, obsessive need for attention — and all have gone to extraordinary lengths to pursue the “niche in history” they crave.
The show itself is a testament to their success in securing that niche. Each assassin represents a dark side of the American Dream. And each exposes that Dream for the sick joke it has always been.
It’s a joke Sondheim wants us to laugh at, but not too hard. His lyrics walk a thin line between tragedy and comedy. He couches them in a score steeped in Americana, with explicit musical shout-outs to John Phillip Sousa. And he shows us the humor — barely appropriate — in this disturbing rogues’ gallery.
We know these characters. They’re as familiar to us as the buffoons and posers we see every day on cable news, social media, and the floor of Congress. We laugh at them. We mock them. And we can’t bring ourselves to take them seriously, even as they do serious damage to the country.
We see them in people like John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor, not famous for acting. He tells us how important it was to kill Lincoln so the South could be freed of tyranny, though it was more likely an overreaction to his recent spate of bad reviews. Today we’d call him a narcissist .
The Booth character eggs on the other misfits populating the stage. He suggests that the answer to their problems — that the remedy for all their failed relationships, thwarted ambitions, and poor life decisions — is to shoot a president.
In a folky duet, John Hinckley sings of his unrequited love for Jodie Foster, while Squeaky Fromme sings of hers for Charlie Manson. Through some tortured logic they alone can see, killing presidents is the ultimate proof of that love.
We meet Leon Czolgosz, a radicalized anarchist, who decides that President McKinley is too much of a capitalist tool to be allowed to live.
There’s Giuseppe Zangara, whose chronic stomach ulcer leads him to shoot at, and miss, Franklin Roosevelt.
Again we have Charles Guiteau, singer of the lyrics above, who insisted that God was his wing man when he killed Garfield, though it was Guiteau who was hanged for it.
And don’t forget Lee Harvey Oswald, who tries to spy for the Soviet Union but can’t get the Russians, or even his Russian wife, to take him seriously — so he assassinates JFK instead.
Every one of these characters is recognizable to us today. The downtrodden, the screwed over, the manipulated, the brainwashed. When the narrator sings “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,” we can’t help but think of Trump and his base.
We’re reminded of all those who were sold on the American Dream. Who were told that hard work would always be rewarded. Who believed, as the show says, that “If you keep your goal in sight/You can climb to any height.” And who were left high and dry when the jobs disappeared and new ones never materialized.
Faced every day with dwindling opportunities, hollowed-out communities, and diminished expectations, they look for someone to blame.
The show zeroes in on those who decide to blame the president, always a convenient focus for American hate. And while these nine assassins make a small sample size, they shine a bright light on that hate. They make us realize that such hate will always demand an outlet.
We now know there are many millions of citizens with the same hate, the same need to blame, and the same peculiarly American infatuation with guns. All of which makes the current moment so menacing.
And with so many juicy targets out there — like, say, Congress — why go after someone as well-protected as the president? Near the end of the show, we see projected onto the back of the stage a montage of the January 6 insurrection.
It wasn’t necessary. By then, everyone in the audience had long since made that connection.
Assassins has always been seen as an oddity in the Sondheim canon, but it has clearly found its moment. While it will never have the stature of Sweeney Todd or Follies or Company or Sunday in the Park, it tops them all for sheer topical relevance, for being three decades ahead of its time.
The country has indeed gone wrong, and not just a little. But Assassins arrives as a welcome reminder that it’s gone wrong before, many times and in many ways. Maybe that’s comforting, maybe not.
But Sondheim was never interested in our comfort. It was insights he was after, and he left us with six decades’ worth. His work will be remembered as a cascade of insights, big and small, each one remarkable for its richness and clarity.
We’re lucky to have them. Even if we can’t have him.
P.S. Two of my biggest heroes — lifelong friends I never met — have died in the last year. I wrote in December 2020 of John le Carré, whose last novel, recently published, only sharpens the pain of his passing.
But Sondheim is likewise a towering figure in my life, as all who know me can attest. I absorbed my first Sondheim lyric at age ten, listening to West Side Story after school on my dad’s stereo, endlessly.
Sondheim and le Carré were giants who transcended their genres. Both attained virtuosic mastery of the English language. Both were shrewd and caustic observers of the human condition. Both resisted the lure of pop culture and commercial compromise. Both set impossibly high standards for their art. And both leave behind a body of work that we mere mortals can only envy, and — lucky for us — return to again and again.