Honorable mentions: “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” “Unworthy of Your Love”
My history teachers from my junior and senior year of high school liked to take the last ten minutes or so of Friday’s class and give a “GIQ,” or “General Information Quiz.” The ten questions were mostly current events, although some involved vague pop culture, or history, or whatever else. Being an enterprising student with a penchant for wrecking the curve, I got to do a couple of guest GIQs my junior year, and on one of them, I decided that a good question would be: “Name all of the people who have assassinated an American president.” One of my classmates looked up at me. “I can’t spell Czolgosz,” she said.
“You know who killed McKinley but you can’t spell his name?” I asked.
“Yep. I’ve only heard it in a musical,” she said.
“There’s not actually a musical about Leon Czolgosz.”
“Not just him. About the people who assassinated a president. And people who tried to but didn’t, for some reason.” The day after that she gave me a burned CD with the full soundtrack of Assassins. It was, if you don’t count West Side Story, my first Sondheim.
I’ve always been a contrarian. When I was growing up in the Northeast, I held right-wing views – far more right-wing than anything I got from my parents – largely because my peers were left of center. (Those GIQ-wielding teachers had a little something to do with my breathless sophomoric fetishization of Andrew Mellon, too.) When I got to the Southeast, I quickly veered to the left; most of the people I interacted with were conservatives. And so listening to the lyrics of “Another National Anthem” at 17, when I was one person, and again at 25, when I’m someone else, is a peculiarly American exercise in doublethink.
The characters of Assassins are almost all successful or would-be killers. Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, and Oswald are there, but so are John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and Samuel Byck and Giuseppe Zangara. Most of them, excepting Booth, are sympathetic in some way. Guiteau, for example, feels that he’s been cheated out of a role as ambassador to France; his insanity is not unlike the iteration exhibited Patrick Prendergast, who actually succeeded in killing his executive target. Hinckley and Fromme want to kill for the sake of their distant loves, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson; they express their goals in an almost unique love song. Byck, most simply, growls and yells because he just hurts all over. And so on. What it boils down to – no one to love, roadblocks to professional success, a government that has let them down – is disappointment, the inevitable disappointment that comes to anyone who believes in the American Dream. “Another National Anthem” details each of those disappointments, as people who believe that they deserve something lament the fact that they can’t get what they were promised.
The other major characters in the show are nameless. The Proprietor is the one who pulls the assassins together, the one who introduces them to the idea of killing a president to ease their dissatisfaction; the Balladeer sings their songs, tells their stories, and, during “Another National Anthem,” intervenes.
While the assassins howl for a “prize,” the Balladeer comes out and very sensibly rebukes them.
And it didn’t mean a nickel,
You just shed a little blood,
And a lot of people shed a lot of tears.
Yes, you made a little moment
And you stirred a little mud
But it didn’t fix the stomach
And you’ve drunk your final Bud
And it didn’t help the workers
And it didn’t heal the country
And it didn’t make them listen,
And they never said, ‘We’re sorry.’
But his solution to their problems, which so appealed to me when I was seventeen, a solution which still occasionally makes me shiver a little out of sheer habit, is Gatsbyesque.
You can be what you choose,
From a mailman to a president.
There are prizes all around you,
If you’re wise enough to see,
The delivery boy’s on Wall Street,
And the usherette’s a rock star.
The assassins are goaded by the Proprietor. There is, he says, “another National Anthem.” And this National Anthem is not for the lucky ones, whose dreams come true, whose troubles are mended, who go from the rough road to the stars. This different National Anthem is one for that part of the nation who can’t seem to get it right, who can’t find any satisfaction, who get spit on and have no other way – it seems, anyway – to fight back. “Sure,” Byck says. “The mailman won the lottery…”
In “A Little Priest,” somewhere between the budding romance of Todd and Mrs. Lovett and the joke about how you know this meat pie used to be a piccolo player (“It’s piping hot.”), there is a lovely statement about social class, so fitting it’s surprised that Karl Marx didn’t jump out of the bathtub and run naked down the street.
The history of the world, my love
Is those below serving those up above.
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below.
Assassins is less explicitly about social class than Sweeney Todd, but the streak is there in Sondheim. There’s a significant concern about how the powerful seem to keep getting what they want. Presidents and judges take and take, habitually getting the benefit of the doubt from the world, while guys in Santa suits and neighborhood barbers have to struggle to get some sad, chewed-up slice of the American pie. And while the assassins are never blameless in the show, their motivations aren’t made light of. It’s very easy to cast judgments without pathos: “He was crazy” or “He was just a bad man.” Everyone who picks up a gun from the Proprietor and takes aim has some reason, some insufficient, unexamined, nasty reason, but a reason nonetheless, to do what they do. “Another National Anthem” is there to give them something to listen to while they salute the flag.