Assassins (theatre)

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Assassins, with a score and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is, to put it simply, a revue featuring the men and women who have killed (or attempted to kill) the President of the United States.

The show is narrated by the Balladeer, who comments on the assassins' actions and motivations. The various killers (including John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, John Hinckley, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Leon Czolgosz) interact throughout the play, regardless of time period. Their assassination attempts are represented like a carnival game -- a bell rings when they succeed, and a buzzer sounds when they fail.

The show is often seen as a dark reflection on the nebulous idea of "the American dream". The assassins are dispossessed, disenfranchised and disillusioned, but they still hold a disproportionate sense of entitlement because they are in America: the land where any kid can grow up to be president, the land where -- as the opening song puts it -- "everybody's got the right to their dreams". It also takes a sideways look at gun culture in America.

Notable in that the music largely mirrors popular music from the assassins' lifetimes. And also for the HUGE amounts of Lyrical Dissonance.

Not to be confused with Professional Killer. Also not to be confused with the film of the same name.

Tropes used in Assassins (theatre) include:
  • Affably Evil: Charles Guiteau is a jolly, optimistic guy who attempted rape and assassinated a president.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Squeaky Fromme is in love with "Charlie" Manson.
  • Ambition Is Evil: The show implies that even though "everybody's got the right to their dreams", you shouldn't necessarily try to achieve them when they're impossible.
  • American Accents
  • American Dream: That of the cynical flavor.
  • Anachronic Order: The timeline jumps everywhere. Not counting the in-between character building scenes, the assassinations/attempts are presented in the order of Lincoln, FDR, McKinley, Reagan, Garfield, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy. Historical order was Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan--but that doesn't really fit with a proper dramatic structure.
  • Anachronism Stew: Characters from vastly different historical eras are seen interacting with each other.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Happens among the assassins at the end when Lee Harvey Oswald shoots JFK. The chorus... not so much.
  • Anti-Villain: The play makes the assassins very sympathetic in some regards, especially Czolgosz.
  • Assassination Is The Best Solution
  • Assassin Outclassin': Naturally, the targets of the failed assassinations.
  • Asshole Victim: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William McKinley, and, eventually, the audience.
    • Arguably, The Balladeer in the revival productions where the Assassins take him down and turn him into Oswald. He deliberately avoids granting any validity to the Assassins' claims that they're the result of the dark-side of the American dream-instead dismissing them as crazy attention-seekers and malcontents and thereby perpetuating the cycle of desperation, disillusionment, and apathy that created them in the first place.
  • Bad Santa: Byck, in the sense that he isn't actually Santa Claus. Because there isn't any Santa Claus!
  • Ballad of X: The Ballads of Booth, Guiteau and Czolgosz.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: The show depicts how belief in any ideology, even that of liberty, can cloud one's judgement and lead them to do things they would otherwise never have considered.
  • Berserk Button: Try not to remind Leon Czolgosz of the job where he boiled his lungs, fried his skin with burning glass, watched his friends die, and got paid six cents an hour just to make some lousy bottles. And whatever you do, DON'T break one of those bottles right in front of him.
    • Guiteau is a real casanova in his attempt to seduce Moore, but when her gun goes off near his head, he flips out.
  • Big No: Zangara at the end of "How I Saved Roosevelt".
  • Black Comedy
  • Blood on These Hands: The successful assassins manage to distract themselves of this by claiming to be heroes.
  • Bonding Over Missing Parents: Fromme and Moore.
  • Book Dumb: Arguably, Sam Byck. He is very eloquent and capable of crafting surprisingly poetic metaphors, but he doesn't understand megatonnes or holes in the ozone layer.
  • Book Ends: The show begins and ends with "Everybody's Got The Right".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Zangara yells at the audience during "How I Saved Roosevelt" for laughing.
  • BSOD Song: "The Ballad of Guiteau", particularly Guiteau's last solo section.
  • Camp Straight: Guiteau, who despite his mannerisms is still attracted to Sarah Jane Moore.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Sara Jane Moore.
    • Squeaky and Guiteau as well.
  • Confused Bystander Interview: Half of the song "How I Saved Roosevelt" is bystanders who witnessed the attempted assassination of Roosevelt talking to the press, and inflating their own importance in the event.
  • Contract on the Hitman
  • Crapsack World: The show depicts America as one.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Zangara's plan to get rid of his stomach ache by assassinating the president of the United States.
    • Most of the assassins' plans boil down to "I want something, killing the president will help me get it." How crazy this idea is in context varies from assassin to assassin.
  • Crowd Song: "How I Saved Roosevelt".
  • Curse Cut Short: In the opening:

Booth/Proprietor: Free country!
Booth: Means you don't have to sit--
Proprietor That's it!
Booth: --and put up with the sh-
Company: Everybody's got the right to some sunshine!

  • The Cynic: Czolgosz.
  • Dark Reprise: "Everybody's Got The Right". After the events of the show, the song gains new meaning.
  • Dead to Begin With: Booth.
  • Death Is Not Permanent: Used symbolically; the assassins don't die, because their acts have made them immortal.
  • Decade Dissonance: Used for effect in the score.
  • Decapitated Army: Played With, Booth believes that having killed Lincoln, the Civil War can finally end.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Most of the assassins have already passed this point by the time they come onstage. Lampshaded by Booth when Oswald tries to justify killing himself.
  • Did Not Do the Research: A few instances:
    • Booth did not shoot himself, he was killed by one of the soldiers chasing him shooting through a hole in the barn he was inside.
    • Guiteau did not ask Garfield for the Ambassador to France position in the train station, and moreover the position he wanted was "Consul to Paris".
    • Moore and Fromme did not attempt to shoot Ford on the same occasion; they were about three weeks apart.
  • The Ditz: Sarah Jane Moore's characterization essentially boils down to this.
  • Divided States of America: Booth says Lincoln "threw the 'U' out of 'USA'".
  • Don't Explain the Joke: Sara Jane Moore:

Fromme: You had amnesia?
Moore: I did? (Laughs) It's a joke. See, it's like, if I had amnesia, then I couldn't remember anything, including that I had amnesia.

  • Driven to Suicide: John Wilkes Booth (but it doesn't stop him from being in the rest of the show).
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: The beginning of "Another National Anthem".
  • Dying Alone: Booth and Zangara.
  • The Eleven O'Clock Number: "Another National Anthem".
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Zangara, which is used to gorgeous dramatic effect in "Take a Look, Lee".
  • Face Death with Dignity: Booth is the only one to do this.
  • Fat Bastard: Sam Byck. So very, very much.
  • Funny Foreigner: Subverted with Giuseppe Zangara in two ways: first, as he mentions in "How I Saved Roosevelt", he's a (naturalized) American citizen. Second, in the scene where he begs Oswald to go through with killing Kennedy, he chooses to speak Italian, with the other assassins translating for him, proving he's more eloquent in his native tongue. It's also oddly referenced with Czolgosz: according to the script, he was "born in the middle of Michigan", making him an American citizen, but he comments that he comes down in history as a "deranged immigrant".
  • The Ghost: Half the Presidents.
  • Gilligan Cut: Guiteau's "I am a terrifying and imposing figure!" is often followed by something not terrifying and unimposing.
  • A Good Way to Die: Booth and Guiteau very much believed they were martyrs and that they sacrificed themselves to save the country.
  • Grief Song: "Something Just Broke", where the American people grieve for the victims of the assassinations.
  • Gunman with Three Names: Lampshaded in a chilling moment between John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Booth: Why do all these rednecks have three names? James Earl Ray! John Wilkes Booth!
Oswald: Lee Harvey Oswald!

  • Hands-On Approach: Guiteau gets very handsy with Sarah Jane Moore while giving her shooting tips.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Near the very end of the show. The sequence labelled November 22, 1963 is where John Wilkes Booth and company convince Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK.
  • Hot-Blooded: Booth and Zangara, in slightly different ways.
  • "I Am" Song: "Unworthy of Your Love" is an interesting example, as it is more about Hinckley and Fromme's disturbed insecurity than about their love interests. It is essentially an "I Am" Song masquerading as an "I Want" Song.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Sarah Jane Moore, by her own admission.

I couldn't hit William Howard Taft if he was sitting on my lap.

Guiteau: Show me your form.
Moore: WHAT?

Guiteau: ...the way you shoot.

  • Insane Equals Violent
  • Insane Troll Logic: John Wilkes Booth is a master of this, being the originator of this entire sick tradition.
    • After Zangara complains that nothing practical he's done has helped his stomach problems, John Wilkes Booth asks if he's tried killing President Roosevelt.

Zangara: You think that help?
Booth: It couldn't hurt.

    • This particular exchange between Booth and Oswald.

Oswald: I didn't come here to shoot the President!
Booth: He didn't come here to get shot.

  • Instant Marksman, Just Squeeze Trigger: Set to music in "The Gun Song".
  • Interactive Narrator: The Balladeer.
  • "I Want" Song: Dark version: "Everybody's Got the Right".
  • Large Ham: Charlie Guiteau.
  • Leitmotif: Several. A good example would be the vamp in the opening when the proprietor tells the assassins to kill the president, a slowed down version of which appears again when Emma Goldman (possibly) does the same to Czolgosz. It also appears when the assassins try to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to kill JFK.
    • Another example is the "c'mere and kill a president" theme, which is heard again when the assassins are all chanting how they can "connect" in a free country, which subconsciously tells us exactly how they believe they can get around doing that.
  • Lemony Narrator: The Balladeer.
  • Loners Are Freaks: John Hinckley.
  • Love Makes You Evil: John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, as seen in "Unworthy of Your Love".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Pretty much every single song. The music invokes every kind of warm, homespun Americana you can think of, while the lyrics turn that vision of America on its head.
  • Midword Rhyme: "How I Saved Roosevelt" contains a mid-letter rhyme, which when written down looks sort of like:

We'd have been left

  • Morality Ballad: The three ballads dedicated to Booth, Czolgosz, and Guiteau.
  • Murder Ballad: The three assassins with eponymous ballads (see above) are the only three successful assassins, before Oswald in the final scene.
  • Musical Pastiche: Nearly every song.
  • The Music Meister: The Balladeer has elements of this. Also, to a lesser extent, the proprietor.
  • Obsession Song: "Unworthy of Your Love", a duet between John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme about their respective obsessions, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Both sides are of the passive type.
  • One-Scene Wonder: The Proprietor, depending on the production, may randomly pop up throughout the musical but he only gets to sing at the opening number.
    • The current licensed score has him singing in two songs, however. Emma Goldman and Lee Harvey Oswald are more clear-cut examples.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, there are two John's (Booth and Hinckley), and two Charlie's if you count Charles Manson.
  • The Pollyanna: Charles J. Guiteau, who, even when waiting to be executed, is compelled to "look on the bright side."
  • President Evil: Well, from the assassins' point of view.
  • Rage Against the Author: The song "Another National Anthem" has elements of this, culminating in the Assassins running the Balladeer off the stage (in the original version) or turning him into one of them (in the revival, where he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald).
    • Also, a minor reflexive example: one of Sam Byck's tirades is aimed at Leonard Bernstein and Byck angrily quotes the lyrics of West Side Story back at him. Those lyrics were, of course, written by Stephen Sondheim.
  • The Reason You Suck Song: The Balladeer's half of all the ballads and "Another National Anthem", mocking the gathered assassins of their aspirations, telling them they just shed a little blood each. The Balladeer is not impressed by the rhetoric of the assassins and makes that blatantly clear.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Sarah Jane Moore is written to be played with no regard for the proper operation or storage of her .38 revolver. She accidentally discharges it no less than five times during the course of the show, once while it's still in her hand bag, narrowly missing Squeaky Fromme, once into the air when she's supposed to be clicking the hammer of an unloaded weapon in "The Gun Song", once when startled with her finger prematurely on the trigger, damaging Charles Guiteau's hearing in the process, and twice during two separate scene change blackouts, with the lights coming up on her scene the second time to reveal she's just accidentally shot her own dog.

Sara Jane: Shit, I shot it!

  • Rummage Fail: Sarah Jane Moore and the "really great gun".
  • Shout-Out: The first line the balladeer sings in "The Ballad of Guiteau" is a shout out to the American folk song "Charles Guiteau".
  • Shown Their Work: All over the place, in subtle ways.
    • Most notably, Guiteau's "Going to the Lordy" bit in his ballad is taken from lyrics the real Guiteau wrote shortly before his execution.
    • Displayed in the final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald, when Booth proves his supernatural nature by telling Oswald a brief version of Oswald's life story.
    • Another example: a band was playing marches by John Philip Sousa at the event where Zangara made his attempt on FDR's life. Zangara's number "How I Saved Roosevelt" features several Sousa marches woven together.
    • In "The Ballad of Booth", John Wilkes Booth's dying words are that "the country is not what it was", which are taken from his final diary entry.
  • Silly Love Songs: Expertly pastiched with "Unworthy of Your Love" (see above).
  • Sir Swearsalot: Moore and Byck, to a lesser extent Fromme.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Hinckley and Fromme. See above.
  • Throw the Book At Them: During "November 22, 1963", "This is stupid. Up here on the sixth floor, what would I do? Throw school books at him?"
  • Trigger Happy: All the protagonists, of course. In particular, Czolgosz, Booth, Moore and Guiteau sing a paean to the power of guns.
  • Triumphant Reprise: After Oswald shoots Kennedy, we hear a large version of the previous "Hail To The Chief" waltz theme.
  • True Companions: The assassins themselves.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Guiteau at the end of "The Ballad of Guiteau" when it finally dawns on him that he's about to be hanged.

I am going to the Lordy
I am so glad
I am going to the Lordy
I am so glad
I have unified my party!
I have saved my country!
I shall be REMEMBERED!

  • Villain Protagonist: Everyone except the Balladeer. Also, in the revival, the Balladeer.
  • Villain Song: Ironically, in a show full of 'villains', the only song that really fits this might be "Everybody's Got The Right". Also, possibly "Another National Anthem".
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: The aforementioned ballads.
  • Voice Types: Surprisingly, almost the entire spectrum is represented, at least with the men.
    • Fromme: Mezzo/pop Belter.
    • Sarah Jane Moore: Mezzo.
    • Zangara: Tenor.
    • Balladeer: Folk tenor.
    • Guiteau: Tenor/high baritone.
    • Hinckley: Pop Baritone.
    • Booth: Baritone.
    • Czolgosz: Bass-baritone.
    • Proprietor: Bass.
    • Byck: Comic baritone.
  • Who Shot JFK?: Referenced in the final scene, with the characters convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with the shooting.
  • You're Insane!: Lee Harvey Oswald says this when he's told to shoot the president.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters