8 – John Philip Sondheim (Assassins)
A great Sondheim device, a sarcastic sneer, a prickly condemnation that typifies the almost misanthropic nature of this remarkable piece. On its face, it’s a feel good all American story about every day people who manage to save FDR from assassination. But you don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to realize that, despite the many quotes from Sousa’s marches, Sondheim isn’t waving any flags here. For one thing, the singers are practically clawing over themselves for the chance to tell their story to the world, cutting each other off, desperate to trumpet their own dubious roles in the affair. And then you realize that their “heroic” actions consisted mostly of being selfish, rude, and inconsiderate; they wouldn’t let a shorter guy get close to the president, so when he pulled a gun he wasn’t able to get a good shot.
The whole time you see the small, almost pitiful assailant strapped to a chair, no parades, no cameras, just a miserable angry man with nothing to live for. He explains how he originally wanted to kill Hoover, but settled on Roosevelt since the weather was better in Miami, as an audience member you laugh, but hearing you, he suddenly turns straight to the audience. “No laugh! No funny!” And suddenly it’s not.