Over the course of a century, plays and musicals about the American presidency have fashioned a steady and diverse subgenre, ranging from the sincere (Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Sunrise at Campobello), to the satiric (Of Thee I Sing!, The Best Man), to the surreal (MacBird! or Nixon’s Nixon) and even the scatological (Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bushor the cult musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins may be the first composition to embrace all four perspectives at once in a work that is poignant, penetrating, pluralist, perverse, surprisingly pleasurable, and deeply, unexpectedly patriotic. Their piece explores the symbolism of the nation’s highest office and its relationship to American beliefs from the fresh perspective of the outside in, with an approach to lyric theatre revealing decisive changes from the inside out.
Like the prismatic society Assassins critiques, the show also demonstrates profound shifts in the American musical from its most integrated period of the early Forties through the mid-Sixties onward. Primarily through the examples of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, the mid-twentieth-century musical aspired toward a structural cohesion and attained a cultural security which clearly distinguished these decades from their predecessors, and would be celebrated as the genre’s Golden Age. In skillfully combining the advances in musicals leading up to their partnership in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein were lionized as masters of their art form, producing a succession of enduring classics from Oklahoma! (1943) through The Sound of Music (1960).
|Stephen Sondheim. Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The son of a divorced fashion designer, Sondheim came into contact with Oscar Hammerstein by virtue of the Sondheims moving from Manhattan to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1942, where Hammerstein had purchased a farm which served as his home base and creative retreat. Sondheim became acquainted with Hammerstein through the latter’s teenage son, and the Hammersteins soon became a surrogate family for their new neighbor. Hammerstein mentored Sondheim in the craft of the musical while also providing him invaluable experience as an assistant on several Broadway projects. Sondheim credits Hammerstein for the cardinal rules which Sondheim continues to honor in his creative work: “less is more”, “content dictates form”, and “God is in the details”.
Oscar Hammerstein (2nd from right) and family beside the young Stephen Sondheim.
However reductively, over the past three decades, Broadway has been attacked for its increasing corporate presence and requisite pressures toward highly professional, if largely diversionary, entertainments. From its inception, Assassins stood as a stark rebuttal to that theme park argument, again taking inspiration from the traveling sideshow. In the shadows of that era’s mammoth megamusicals through today’s trend of Hollywood catalogue titles, Assassins remains unvarnished, more dangerous, more informed by risk and definitely more adventurous. Though circumstances delayed its appearance on Broadway for more than a decade, Assassins is fueled by that same ambition for reinvention as the greatest of the Golden Age musicals.