by Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930)
To what extent are we aware that our current approach to life on this planet is unsustainable? It may be that what little awareness we have is ruthlessly suppressed. We don’t want to change. But then along comes that pesky prophet, the artist, and reminds us that all is not well and that perhaps we had better reassess our stubborn stance of: “I don’t want to wake up and you can’t make me.”
“Everything is wrong in Stephen Sondheim’s deliberately disjointed musical revue ‘Assassins,’ because something is clearly wrong with America.”[i] In front of a stage-setting resembling a carnival shooting gallery, with a sign inviting carnival goers to step right up and “Shoot the Prez,” are nine actors with raised weapons portraying real or would-be presidential assassins. Is this a musical or a bad dream? Maybe it’s reality and a bad dream. What these nine characters have in common are “degrees of mad delusion and, more disturbingly, a shared notion that the American Dream was a massive sham.”[ii]
Our nine deranged and angry men and women are correct as far as they go which isn’t far enough. It isn’t the American Dream that is the illusion, it is life itself—as we all live it—that is the “mad delusion.” The American president is the symbol, the Other, onto which each of our characters projects his/her anger.
We are not deluded that those who have seen or will see this musical will see the deeper message contained in it because Sondheim himself didn’t either. But we do know that violence in our society is increasing as we try to contain the ever-darkening shadow that demands we wake up or suffer the consequences. And we agree with Denver Post theatre critic John Moore that “something is wrong when violence so permeates our nation’s history and yet our response is so often, ‘Hey, let’s put on a show.’”[iii] Nothing distracts us from reality quite as effectively as entertainment. The trouble is it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish entertainment from reality.
[i] Moore, John. “A Musical Murderers’ Row.” The Denver Post. August 8, 2005, page 3F.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.