music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman
"Everybody's got the right to be happy!" So sings the "Proprietor," the barker who entices us into the murderous sideshow of a bizarre carnival. The main attraction? Assassins and would-be assassins of US presidents are ready to sing you their stories if you'll come on in to the shooting gallery.
Starting with John Wilkes Booth in 1865, leading up to John Hinckley Jr’s attempts in 1981, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have included the four assassins and five would-be assassins whose "pursuit of happiness" led them to their deluded, frightening, clumsy, even at times, yes, comic ends.
Choosing the setting of an old-time, all-American carnival, with touches of vaudeville and music that begins with the welcoming form of the ballad, Sondheim and Weidman dare to balance on the high beam, horror, comedy, and tragedy, and take on a subject just as taboo when it premiered in 1990, as it is today. Unsparing in their exploration of these characters, they still manage to maintain the lightest of touches, and the contrast is irresistibly entertaining and undeniably chilling at once.
When Assassins was first published, it included a preface by the writers, an overview of the play, and in particular, the idea that was its genesis. Nothing, they wrote, is more frightening than a person who is overwhelmingly insecure, yet feels unequivocally entitled. In exploring such personalities, they went on to create one of the most brilliant, darkly satiric plays ever written.
"Nothing quite prepares you for the disturbing brilliance of Assassins” (NYT).
". . . for a show about homicidal people, Assassins is bitingly humorous. . . . Yet the show has endured because it describes an American trait that transcends eras and politics: the obsessive, narcissistic need for attention and self-fulfillment—here expressed through violence rather than, say, art or science" (Newsday).
“Intelligent and thrilling . . . Dazzling in its originality.” (Theaterweek).
" Exquisite may be an odd word to use here . . . Scintillating doesn’t seem quite right, either. But they come closest to capturing the essence of . . . Sondheim and Weidman’s fabulous freak show (pun irresistible) (Variety).