On Jan. 6, the nation watched in horror as the U.S. Capitol, a symbol of democracy around the world, was overrun and looted by people with violent intent toward our government officials and our democratic processes. In the midst of processing this event, I was reminded of something that could not be any more thematically different than a horrifying, traitorous riot: a musical.
But not just any musical. I thought of “Assassins,” a show about nine of the most famous United States president’s assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (“Into the Woods”) and book by John Weidman (“Pacific Overtures”). The show offers a dark, nuanced look at the destructive forces that run parallel to our national identity.
Two years ago, I performed this piece in a tiny, black box theatre, and not long after the insurrection, the video of our performance was finally uploaded to YouTube. With the acquittal of former President Donald Trump and the nation reflecting on the insurrection at the Capitol, I’d like to revisit this piece. As much as we wish to pretend the past is history, “Assassins” reminds us that the present almost always intertwines with the past.
“Assassins” premiered in 1990 and was most famously revived in 2004 with Neil Patrick Harris playing the Balladeer, one of the titular figures of the show. It’s a revue-style musical that disregards time and space so these historical figures can interact in dramatic, insightful and (very) comical ways.
The show probes the motives and methods of these unusual killers asking for understanding, if not empathy. The show posits that America has unique qualities predisposing it to maniacal violence.
The opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” deliberately compares American legal rights to the justifications of the assassins. The titular culprits proudly sing, “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” just like the right to free speech or the right to bear arms.
Although the assassins are clearly delusional, each is shown to have very human desires which they believe can only be remedied by one gloriously violent act. Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, wants to ease the pain of his undiagnosed stomach condition; Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, wants workers’ rights; Samuel Byck, the attempted assassin of Richard Nixon, has economic and political anxieties.
These men and women are at the end of their rope and have nowhere else to go. They seem to be asking, “I’ve tried everything, every other avenue, and nothing’s worked, so what choice do I have?”
And here lies the answer they’ve been looking for — killing the president would show the world how far they’re willing to go, how deep their discontent lies. This is especially poignant after Lee Harvey Oswald assassinates John F. Kennedy at the end of the show, after which the assassins celebrate the misery of the American people.
But “Assassins” knows that strong desire itself doesn’t necessarily lead to violence. There has to be another ingredient: desperation. The longer the killers are denied their wish, the longer their anger can fester before it becomes hate — hate that is directed at everything and everyone. That’s why they try to kill the president. It’s never about the man himself; it’s about what he represents and the anguish that his death will bring to the nation.
The mindset “Assassins” explores should be eerily familiar. It’s an American attitude, stemming from our unique brand of “equality and liberty.”
“The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a wonderful sentiment, but it is easy to forget that this promise does not guarantee happiness itself, only the pursuit of it. “America is the greatest country in the world,” where anyone can be happy, where businesspeople are successful and everyone is free. Yet, what happens when you don’t get what you want or feel trapped and helpless? What then? In the words of fictional Samuel Byck: “We do the only thing we can do. We kill the president.”
Those who incited, encouraged and refused to prevent the insurrection on Jan. 6 tapped into a psychology that seems to have always been in the American consciousness — an undercurrent of hate and anger — which, at one time, motivated the assassins to commit unspeakable acts, and observed most recently, inspired many more to take what they wanted from our government by any means necessary.
As shocking as this idea may be, “Assassins” demonstrates that this feeling is nothing new. In 1990, John Weidman wrote a monologue for Samuel Byck, the man from 1974 who had grown so disillusioned with politics, he wanted to assassinate the president:
“The Democrat says he’ll fix everything, the Republicans fucked up. The Republican says he’ll fix everything, the Democrats fucked up. Who’s telling us the truth? Who’s lying? Someone’s lying. Who? We read, we guess, we argue, but deep down we know that we don’t know. … We need to believe, to trust like little kids, that someone wants what’s best for us, that someone’s looking out for us. That someone loves us. Who do we believe? What do we do?! (A beat.) We do what we have to do.”
When put into this frame, the events of Jan. 6 make a lot more sense. One politician says this, another says that. No one agrees. Nothing gets done. No one listens. There’s no trust between the American public and our government, and that’s how it’s been for decades.
But then someone comes along who’s got all the answers and says everything you want to hear. He says he’s going to cure all your economic and political anxieties and make everyone who you don’t like shut up or flee, of course you follow him. Because once those who are bound to logic and reason deceive you, all of a sudden they don’t seem very appealing.
The lies Trump tells his supporters don’t matter because they love his truth. They love when he tells them the world is corrupt and everyone but him is evil because that’s the image politicians have been creating for themselves for decades. Truth has always been nothing more than a tool for gaining power, and they love that someone finally said it.
We should have seen it coming. Thirty years ago, Sondheim and Weidman wrote a musical about an American ideology that lived just on the flip side of our national values. Now, what was once a fringe belief system held by a few lone assassins is the mantra of millions of Americans.
It’s a terrifying reality, and the recent verdict given by the U.S. Senate has done nothing to deter the vicious mob. If the past portrayed in “Assassins” is really of any relevance to the present, then this line from “Another National Anthem,” sung by the musical’s assassins, might as well have been the slogan of the insurrection:
“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.”
Daily Arts Contributor Micah Golan can be reached at email@example.com.