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Assassins
Assassins

Music: Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Opened: December 18, 1990
At: Playwrights Horizons
Starring:

  • Victor Garber
  • Terrence Mann
  • Patrick Cassidy
  • Debra Monk
  • Greg Germann
  • Annie Golden.

Awards:
2004 Tony Awards (Revival)

  • Best Revival of a Musical
  • Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris)
  • Best Lighting Design (Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher)
  • Best Direction of a Musical (Joe Mantello)
  • Best Orchestrations (Michael Starobin)


Assassins is a musical highlighting the lives of nine people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate an American president, formed around the experience of Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. The characters, from many different points in history, interact to reveal common themes among them.

Synopsis[]

This synopsis reflects the current licensed version of the show. The published script of the 1992 Off-Broadway production is slightly different.

The show opens in a fairground shooting gallery where, amid flashing lights, human figures trundle past on a conveyor belt. One by one, a collection of misfits enters the stage, where the Proprietor of the game entices them to play, promising that their problems will be solved by killing a President ("Everybody’s Got the Right"). Leon Czolgosz, John Hinckley, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore are given their guns one by one. John Wilkes Booth enters last and the Proprietor introduces him to the others as their pioneer before he begins distributing ammunition. The assassins take aim as "Hail to the Chief" heralds Abraham Lincoln's offstage arrival. Booth excuses himself, a shot rings out and Booth shouts, "Sic semper tyrannis!"

The Balladeer, a personification of the American Dream, appears and begins to tell John Wilkes Booth's story ("The Ballad of Booth"). The scene changes to Richard H. Garrett's barn in 1865. Booth, mudstained and with a broken leg, is attempting to write his reasons for killing Lincoln in his diary but cannot hold the pen. He forces his associate David Herold to write for him at gunpoint. As Booth dictates, blaming Lincoln for the Civil War and for destroying the South, the Balladeer interjects that Booth's motives really had more to do with his personal problems. When a Union soldier calls for Booth's surrender, Herold abandons him and surrenders. In desperation, Booth throws the Balladeer his diary so that he can tell his story to the world. The Balladeer reads out Booth's justifications, and Booth laments that the act for which he has given up his life will not be enough to heal the country. As the Union soldiers set fire to the barn, Booth commits suicide, and the Balladeer concludes that Booth was a madman whose treacherous legacy only served as inspiration for other madmen like him to damage the country. The Balladeer rips Booth's rationale from his diary and burns the pages.

The Assassins gather in a bar. Guiteau toasts to the Presidency of the United States, speaking of his ambition to become Ambassador to France. Hinckley accidentally breaks a bottle, and Czolgosz flies into a rage, describing the horrors he sees in the bottle factory he works in and how many men die or are injured just to make a bottle like the one Hinckley has just broken. Guiteau jokingly tells Czolgosz to find another job, and the two begin to argue about the American Dream, with Guiteau defending America and Czolgosz dismissing the "land of opportunity" as a lie. Czolgosz becomes enraged and grabs a bottle, barely stopping himself from throwing it across the room. Booth urges Czolgosz to take control of his fate by breaking a bottle himself, but Czolgosz cannot. Zangara complains about his stomach pains, and Booth suggests fixing them by shooting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A radio broadcast, narrated by the Proprietor, describes Zangara's failed attempt to assassinate Roosevelt. He misses Roosevelt and accidentally kills Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead. Five Bystanders are interviewed in turn, telling the audience their personal versions of the event; each is convinced that he or she personally saved the President ("How I Saved Roosevelt"). From an electric chair, Zangara sings his refusal to be afraid and that he hadn't cared whom he killed as long as it was one of the men who control the money. Peeved that as an "American Nothing" he has no photographers at his execution, Zangara is electrocuted as the Bystanders preen for the cameras.

American anarchist leader Emma Goldman gives a lecture from offstage as Leon Czolgosz listens, enraptured. He introduces himself to her and declares his love, but she tells him to redirect his passion to the fight for social justice. She gives him a leaflet that she tells him contains an idea that is "not mine alone, but mine". As she prepares to leave, Czolgosz offers to carry her bag, to which Goldman protests by saying, "They make us servants, Leon. We do not make servants of each other." Czolgosz, in his first display of assertiveness, still insists.

Fromme and Moore meet on a park bench and share a joint. Fromme speaks of the apocalyptic preachings of mass murderer Charles Manson, remembering how they met and declaring herself his lover and slave. Juggling her purse, a can of Tab and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Moore claims she is an informant for the FBI (or used to be), has been a CPA and had five husbands and three children. They connect over their shared hatred of their fathers, and using Colonel Sanders as a graven image, they give the bucket of chicken the evil eye and then shoot it to pieces while laughing hysterically. Moore realizes that she had known Manson in high school, and the scene ends as the women scream in delight over their memories of the charismatic killer.

Czolgosz reflects on how many men die in the mines, the steel mills and the factories just to make a gun. Booth, Guiteau and Moore enter one by one and join him in a barbershop quartet in which they honor a single gun's power to change the world ("The Gun Song"). Czolgosz decides his gun will claim one more victim: the President.

Czolgosz arrives at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and sees that William McKinley is shaking visitors' hands in the Temple of Music Pavilion. The Balladeer sings "The Ballad of Czolgosz" as Czolgosz joins the receiving line, and upon reaching McKinley, he shoots him.

Samuel Byck sits on a park bench in a dirty Santa suit with a picket sign and a shopping bag. He talks into a tape recorder, preparing a message to Leonard Bernstein telling Bernstein he can save the world by writing more love songs, and explaining that he is going to change things by crashing a 747 into the White House and killing Richard Nixon. Then he accuses Bernstein of ignoring him, just like the other celebrities he has recorded tapes for, such as Hank Aaron and Jonas Salk. After flying into an expletive-laden rage, Byck stands up on the bench and angrily sings the chorus to West Side Story's song "America" before storming offstage.

John Hinckley sits in his rumpus room, aimlessly playing a guitar. Lynette Fromme enters and tries to convince him to play her a song (asking for "Helter Skelter"), but he refuses. Fromme notices a picture of Jodie Foster, who Hinckley claims is his girlfriend. When Fromme realizes the picture is a publicity photo from a film, she pulls out a picture of Charles Manson and mocks Hinckley for being in love with a woman he's never met, which makes him throw her out in a fit of rage. Alone, he swears that he will win Foster's love "with one brave, historic act" and sings a love song to her while Fromme individually does the same to Manson ("Unworthy of Your Love"). An image of Ronald Reagan appears on a wall in the back of the stage, and an enraged Hinckley shoots it over and over again, but the picture keeps reappearing. The Proprietor mocks Hinckley by quoting Reagan's famous quips about the assassination as Hinckley fires and fires, missing each time.

Back at the Proprietor's shooting range, Charles Guiteau flirts with Sara Jane Moore while giving her marksmanship tips before trying to kiss her. When she rebuffs him, he becomes suddenly enraged and attempts to attack her. Her gun goes off in his ear, and he backs off, angrily proclaiming that he is extraordinary and will be the next Ambassador to France. The scene changes to a train station, where Guiteau goes to meet James Garfield. He asks to be made Ambassador to France, but Garfield mockingly refuses, prompting Guiteau to shoot him.

Guiteau is arrested and sent to the gallows, where he recites a poem he wrote that morning titled "I am Going to the Lordy". When Guiteau finishes, the Balladeer enters and sings about Guiteau's trial and sentencing while Guiteau merrily cakewalks up to the noose, getting more and more desperately optimistic with each verse. Guiteau sings along with the Balladeer about Guiteau's optimism before he is finally hanged ("The Ballad of Guiteau").

Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore prepare to assassinate Gerald Ford. Moore has brought along her nine-year-old son and her dog (which she accidentally shoots), which causes an argument between the two women, who briefly turn on each other. Moore accidentally spills her gun's bullets just as President Ford enters the stage. Not recognizing him at first, the two women allow him to help them, but upon discovering who he is, Fromme tries to shoot him, but her gun jams. Having no other resource left, Moore tries to throw her bullets at Ford, shouting "bang" as she does so.

Samuel Byck is driving to the airport to hijack a plane, which he plans to crash into the White House. Growing completely unhinged, he records a message addressed to Richard Nixon, complaining about contemporary American life, how the American public is constantly lied to, and announces that killing him is the only solution.

The assassins congregate in the Proprietor's shooting range once again and enumerate their reasons for taking action. Led by Byck, they lament that they haven't gotten the rewards they were "promised". The Balladeer tells them that their actions didn't solve their problems or the country's and that if they want their prizes they must follow the American Dream. The assassins realize that they will never get their prizes, that no one will ever care if they live or die, and briefly sink into absolute desperation until Byck and the Proprietor lead them in "Another National Anthem," a song for all Americans dispossessed by the dream. The Balladeer attempts to convince them to be optimistic and seek other ways to be happy, but the Anthem grows louder and louder until the assassins force the Balladeer offstage (in the 2004 revival and many productions that followed, the Assassins all surround the Balladeer, transforming him into Lee Harvey Oswald).

The scene changes to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The ghosts of John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, and the other "would be" assassins including John Hinckley, Giuseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore, appear before a suicidally depressed and aggressive Lee Harvey Oswald, and convince him that the only way for him to truly connect with his country is to share his pain and disillusionment with it. They slowly and carefully attempt to convince him not to become his own victim and to instead assassinate John F. Kennedy. Booth tells Oswald that by joining them he will finally make a difference, but Oswald refuses. Booth tells him that in the future, when Hinckley's room is searched, Oswald's biographies will be found. Booth tells Oswald that the key to the future is in his hands. Oswald tries to leave, but Zangara addresses him passionately in Italian, his words translated by the other assassins, imploring him to act so their own acts can come alive again. They tell him that he has the power to cause worldwide grief and inspire global passion about himself, a man the world has never cared or heard about. Calling themselves his family, the assassins sing, imploring Oswald to act. He crouches at the window and shoots ("November 22, 1963").

After the assassinations, a group of citizens from different time periods recount what they were doing when they heard that the President had been killed and lament that even though only a single man died, the nation has changed forever ("Something Just Broke").

The assassins regroup once more at the shooting range, now with Oswald among their ranks, and they proudly restate their motto, "Everybody's got the right to be happy," before loading their guns and opening fire on the audience ("Everybody's Got the Right (Reprise)").

Production Casts[]

Role Workshop Off-Broadway Off-West End Broadway Sheffield Off-West End Revival Yale Repertory Theatre NYCC Encores! Off-Broadway Revival Chichester Festival Theatre
1989 1992 2004 2006 2014 2017 2021 2023
John Wilkes Booth Victor Garber David Firth Michael Cerveris Hadley Fraser Aaron Tveit Robert Lenzi Steven Pasqaule Danny Mac
Charles Guiteau Jonathan Hardy Henry Goodman Denis O'Hare Ian Bartholomew Andy Nyman Stephen DeRosa John Ellison Conlee Will Swenson Harry Hepple
Leon Czolgosz Anthony Heald Terrence Mann Jack Ellis James Barbour Billy Carter David Roberts P.J. Griffith Shuler Hensley Brandon Uranowitz Sam Oladeinde
Giuseppe Zangara Michael Jeter Eddie Korbich Paul Harrhy Jeffery Kuhn Richard Colvin Stewart Clarke Stanley Bahorek Alex Brightman Wesley Taylor Luke Brady
Samuel Byck Nathan Lane Lee Wilkof Ciaran Hinds Mario Cantone Gerard Murphy Mike McShane Richard R. Henry Danny Wolohan Andy Grotelueschen Nick Holder
Sara Jane Moore Christine Baranski Debra Monk Louise Gold Becky Ann Baker Josie Walker Catherine Tate Julia Murney Victoria Clark Judy Kuhn Amy Booth-Steele
Lynette "Sqeuaky" Fromme Swoosie Kurtz Annie Golden Catheryn Bradshaw Mary Catherine Garrison Penny Layden Erin Markey Lauren Molina Erin Markey Tavi Gevinson Carly Mercedes Dyer
John Hinckley Jr. Paul McCrane Greg Germann Michael Cantwell Alexander Gemignani James Gillan Steven Boyer Lucas Dixon Steven Boyer Adam Chanler-Berat Jack Shalloo
The Balladeer(s) Kevin Anderson Patrick Cassidy Anthony Barclay Neil Patrick Harris Matt Rawle Jamie Parker Dylan Frederick Clifton Duncan Ethan Slater Liam Tamne, Lizzy Connolly, Samuel Thomas
Lee Harvey Oswald Jace Alexander Gareth Snook Matt Cross Cory Michael Smith Samuel Thomas
The Proprietor Tim Jerome William Parry Paul Bentley Marc Kudisch Dave Burrows Simon Lipkin Austin Durant Ethan Lipton Eddie Cooper Peter Forbes

Characters (In Order of Apperance)[]

Fictional:[]

  • The Proprietor - A Gun Salesman and Carnival Barker who provides the assassins with their weapons
  • The Balladeer - The Narrator of the Show who provides the stories of the successful assassins (Some productions have more than one balladeer and have the Balladeer double as Lee Harvey Oswald)
  • Billy - Sara Jane Moore's spoiled soon (In real life, Moore's son is actually named Frederic)
  • Ensemble (Bystanders, Fairgoers, Townspeople, ETC)

Historical:[]

  • Leon Czolgosz - Assassin of President William McKinley
  • John Hinckley Jr. - Guitarist and attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan, he is shown to have a crush on actress Jodie Foster
  • Charles Guiteau - Assassin of President James Garfield
  • Giuseppe Zangara - Italian Immigrant and attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, he ended up killing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermack.
  • Samuel Byck - Hijacker, Protester, and attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon
  • Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme - Manson Family Cult member and attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
  • Sara Jane Moore - Attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
  • John Wilkes Booth - Leader of the assassins and assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
  • David Herold - Accomplice of John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
  • Emma Goldman - Anarchist known for her political activism who also interacted several times with Leon Czolgosz
  • James Blaine - Secretary of State who received a deluge of letters from Charles Guiteau
  • President James A. Garfield - 12th President of the United States
  • President Gerald Ford - 28th President of the United States
  • Lee Harvey Oswald - Assassin of President John F. Kennedy

Additional Characters[]

Characters mentioned that were added as physical characters in local productions

  • William McKinley - 25th President of the United States
  • Ronald Reagan - 40th President of the United States
  • FBI Agents
  • Jack Ruby - Assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald

Song List[]

  • Everybody's Got the Right - Proprietor & Assassins (except for Oswald)
  • The Ballad of Booth - Balladeer & Booth
  • How I Saved Roosevelt - Proprietor, Zangara, & Bystanders
  • The Gun Song - Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, & Moore
  • The Ballad of Czolgosz - Balladeer & Fairgoers
  • Unworthy of your Love - Hinckley & Fromme
  • The Ballad of Guiteau - Balladeer & Guiteau
  • Another National Anthem - Proprietor, Balladeer, Byck, & Assassins (except for Oswald)
  • November 22, 1963 - Oswald & Assassins
  • Something Just Broke - Ensemble (Song not included in 1990 off-broadway production)
  • Everybody's Got the Right (Reprise) - Assassins
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