BOOTH: You know, you really ought to do something about that stomach.
ZANGARA: I do everything about this stomach!
BOOTH: Oh, yes?
ZANGARA: I give up wine, no good. I give up smokes, no good. I quit my work, no good. I move Miami, no good. I take appendix out, no good. Nothing no good. Nothing, nothing, nothing!
BOOTH: Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt?
ZANGARA: You think that help?
BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.
In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, lots of people wrote lots of thinkpieces about lots of different art that could putatively “explain” This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, whether through its content (e.g. Idiocracy) or the cultural discourse surrounding it (e.g. the truly wild amount of controversy and debate about the Ghostbusters remake). I understand the impulse, even if I find it misguided and sad. People want a piece of media to unlock everything because it creates the illusion that you can understand and control things that are either inexplicable or which require you to re-evaluate yourself and your life in a way that’s uncomfortable or even painful. It’s not really that different from why people become conspiracy theorists, though art is usually a less dangerous lens through which to seek clarity. The main musical afflicted with this unfair burden was Hamilton, which was held up as either a celebration of bipartisan procedural democracy or a rebuke to rising xenophobia, depending on what was convenient. But some other musicals got the same treatment, including Evita and Assassins. (Not The Fix though, because no one gives a shit about The Fix.)
Assassins¹ is a very strange musical, even for Stephen Sondheim, one of the form’s most idiosyncratic writers. (He wrote the music and lyrics; John Weidman wrote the book.) It concerns some of the various men and women (mostly men) who assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with a particular focus on those who succeeded: John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald. You could say it has a non-linear plot, since it presents the assassinations out of order, but that understates the oddness of its narrative structure.
Between assassinations, all the characters hang out in a kind of purgatory that exists before, after and alongside their lives. John Wilkes Booth, who died in 1865, gives Giuseppe Zangara the idea to shoot FDR in 1933. John Hinckley, Jr. and Sara Jane Moore sing a duet about their plans to kill Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford respectively. Like Into the Woods, another Sondheim musical, it has an omniscient narrator who comes into conflict with the characters and is eventually destroyed by them. It’s very weird, very dark and very, very funny. It’s one of my favourite musicals of all time.
I don’t think Assassins can explain the current political moment. I don’t think any work of art can, because art just isn’t very good at providing answers like that. But art is excellent at asking questions or reframing how we think. Not much leaves me thinking quite like Assassins does.
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