It’s impossible to walk out of the theater after seeing a Stephen Sondheim play and not talk about what just happened. And that’s not JUST because he can write spectacular Broadway musicals. Sondheim can fit more political and philosophical statements in a 100-minute show than some presidents can in an entire term. In this past weekend’s performance of student-group MUSKET’s “Assassins,” a musical about nine assassination attempts on U.S. presidents, the audience couldn’t leave the Power Center without bursting for discussion.
Sondheim gives his audience an uncomfortable perspective in “Assassins” from the very beginning when the show’s narrator comes out of the audience and runs onstage to tell the musical’s story of nine crazed individuals. Citing Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Sondheim tells his audience that “attention must be paid.” He wants people to think about the sequence of events that alters lives indefinitely. He doesn’t want the audience to exit the production fearing violence, assassination or human nature, but rather to question society’s influence on individuals’ extreme actions.
Even when sitting with some of the cast members in Jimmy John’s after opening night, no one could agree on what exactly his musical is trying to say. Which is precisely why “Assassins” will live a long and prosperous life – is Sondheim telling the American people it’s their fault for what happened to these nine assassins? Is he warning us that any one of us could be the next character in his musical? Or is he making a statement about human passion?
MUSKET director Stephen Sposito extended Sondheim’s multi-faceted message one step beyond the script for the show’s closing moment. Sposito literally puts the future of assassination into the hands of one small, freckled fifth-grade boy, brought onstage and welcomed by John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau with open arms. He joins the center stage line of assassins as they shoot the American flag to the ground.
We wiggle in our seats and try to laugh it off, but the truth is Sondheim addresses what people don’t want to admit. The audience gasps when the young boy enters with a gun, and they laugh uncomfortably as he takes his cherished position in future history books. Similarly, the audience can’t handle it when mother Sara Jane Moore points a gun at the same child. Sondheim creates an enjoyable environment that the politically correct world refuses to embrace, a world where mothers point guns at their children and people laugh at others’ deaths.
We’ve created a “them” and an “us” in history that separates the good from the bad and the right from the wrong. But sitting in the audience of “Assassins” you watch an average audience member emerge from the house seats as a main character. These individuals are us. They have the same human instincts and the same passion – but channeled in a devastating way. After the initial shock of John Wilkes Booth’s suicide in scene two, you aren’t going anywhere. The show is worth more than the $7 ticket in your hand; you’re there and you’re part of it.
As much as we don’t want to admit to the fact that we might have had an influence on Lee Harvey Oswald and Squeaky Fromme, we still think about it. Sondheim’s work is enjoyable through such fanciful lyrics as “But God was acquitted and Charlie committed.” But his underlying themes are dark and twisted – yet we clap and cheer for more. As a society, what could we have done to prevent the awful assassinations of the past? Was it our fault in the first place? Sondheim doesn’t have the answer, but we think about it nonetheless.
Sondheim’s work, the cast of MUSKET’s show and the conversation in the Power Center lobby afterward – brilliant.
Attention has been paid.