«On the Trail of Two Assassins: Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s Reinvention of a Musical by Charles Gilbert LARA E. HOUSEZ, Eastman School ...»
On the Trail of Two Assassins: Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s Reinvention of
a Musical by Charles Gilbert
LARA E. HOUSEZ, Eastman School of Music
That Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s Assassins originated with an “idea” by
Charles S. Gilbert, Jr. (b. 1955) is well documented. Both Sondheim and Weidman referred to
Gilbert’s contributions in published interviews leading up to the Off Broadway opening of
Assassins at Playwrights Horizons on 27 January 1991, and the playbill credited Gilbert in
small, bold uppercase type with the names of donors and the theater (instead of the creators):
“ASSASSINS is based on an idea by CHARLES GILBERT, JR.” 1 (See Fig. 1). In the script, published later that year, Gilbert’s name was relegated to the bottom of a page devoted to the names of the members of the original production team and cast, as if his idea were specific to that production. 2 And, at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2004 Broadway revival, a new phrase, “From an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.,” appeared at the bottom of the credits where it was printed in the smallest and least conspicuous type on the page.
Gilbert, as the secondary literature attests, was an aspiring composer-lyricist who had written a “play” entitled Assassins. 3 His work had caught Sondheim’s attention in the early 1980s, when Sondheim had acted as a judge for a new program at the Musical Theater Lab, Mervyn Rothstein, “Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’: Insane Realities of History,” New York Times, 27 January 1991, H5, 34.
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, Assassins (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991), v.
Stephen Banfield, Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 48-49; Jim Lovensheimer, “Stephen Sondheim and the Musical of the Outsider,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, ed. William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 181-196;
and Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 361-66.
Figure 1. Assassins Playbill, Playwrights Horizons, New York, p.
39 which intended to pair novice playwrights with experienced theater professionals. “What a great idea for a musical,” Sondheim recalls examining the script. “I wish I had had that idea.”4 Gilbert was selected as a finalist, but the program dissolved before a winner could be selected.
“The script and tape that arrived by return mail went onto the shelf,” Gilbert remembers, “and I turned my attention to other matters.” 5 In 1988, Pacific Overtures librettist Weidman approached Sondheim with an idea for a musical about Woodrow Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference. His suggestion reminded Sondheim of Gilbert’s Assassins. “My reaction to the title alone,” Weidman recalls, “even before I knew what it was about, was that it was a great idea.”6 With Weidman’s encouragement, Sondheim contacted Gilbert, who, by then, was teaching part-time at Temple University and freelancing as a writer, composer, and director. Sondheim asked him for permission to “take his idea and run with it in our own way.” 7 Gilbert recollects receiving the
first letter from Sondheim:
Shuffling inattentively through my mail on a spring afternoon in 1988, I doubt I was looking for the letter that would change my life. Still, there was no mistaking the signature at the bottom of the page. It was a letter from Stephen Sondheim, inquiring about the status of Assassins and wondering if I would consider letting him write a work based on my idea. 8 References to Gilbert’s contributions to Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins stop there. None of the published commentaries engages primary source material, and the absence of any discussion of Gilbert’s original work—itself actually a “musical” and not a “play”—creates a distorted picture of his “idea” and its role in the genesis of Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins.
Cited in Rothstein, “Sondheim’s ‘Assassins,’” H5, 34.
Charles Gilbert, Jr., “A Tale of Two Assassins,” http://chasgilbert/articles/assassins/html.
Cited in Rothstein, “Sondheim’s ‘Assassins,’” H34.
Gilbert, “A Tale of Two Assassins.” We learn a good deal more from that letter that Sondheim sent to Gilbert on 31 March 1988:
I don’t know whether or not in the intervening years you decided to go back to the notion and redevelop it or to abandon it. Obviously, the idea of a show about assassins is not what the lawyers would call protectable, but I wouldn’t want to interfere in any way with any plans you might have for it. If, however, it has been indeed consigned to your creative attic, I would greatly appreciate your letting me know. As a matter of curiosity, I would also like to read your script once again, if you could spare a copy.
Gilbert first offered to collaborate with Sondheim on the piece. “I was pretty cheeky,” Gilbert said. “It was like writing a letter to God. [Sondheim] phoned, very cordial, and said he had someone else in mind.” 10 Eager to find out what would happen to his musical in the hands of such experienced theater practitioners, Gilbert consented to Sondheim’s proposal.11 Letter from Stephen Sondheim to Charles Gilbert, Jr., 31 March 1988. I have been unable to ascertain what materials Gilbert furnished Sondheim at this point in time. Nor have I gained access to the nature or timing of the “suitable legal and financial arrangements.” Cited in Secrest, Stephen Sondheim, 361-62.
Gilbert, “A Tale of Two Assassins.” Gilbert himself has chronicled his involvement in “A Tale of Two Assassins,” an article posted on his personal website that describes his work, its original production, his first
interactions with Sondheim, and his reactions to the later version. Gilbert writes:
While the ultimate success of Assassins is largely attributable to the creative brilliance of its authors, who have fashioned a unique and remarkable piece of musical theater, I would like to think that part of this work’s persistence is the result of the potency of its subject matter... My feelings are those I imagine that a parent would have upon re-meeting a child he has given up for adoption.
The “family resemblance” is clear to anyone who knows the history of the work’s development. 12 The family resemblance of Gilbert’s script and score to Sondheim’s and Weidman’s has remained conjectural, and the scope and influence of Gilbert’s original “idea” have yet to be explored. What exactly was that idea? How closely based on that idea is Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins? Do the two musicals share more than a title and partial cast of characters? Was Sondheim familiar with Gilbert’s score? Access to Gilbert’s unpublished script (dated 1979), the critical reception of his original production, correspondence between Gilbert and Sondheim, and my personal communications with Gilbert allow me to address some of these questions. 13 Although one can identify concordances between the two scripts and scores, absent access to precisely what Sondheim and Weidman received from Gilbert in 1988, the documentary transmission, scope, and substance of the “idea” will remain somewhat speculative. Striking similarities between the two musicals raise important questions about the received historical narrative of the origins of Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins and broader issues of authorship, influence, and genesis.
Gilbert, “A Tale of Two Assassins.” Charles Gilbert, Jr., Assassins: A New Musical (photocopy, Wilmington, DE, 1979).
The making of Assassins began fourteen years before Sondheim’s and Weidman’s musical opened in New York. In early November 1977, Gilbert, searching for an original subject for a musical, visited the library at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where, a few months earlier, he had completed his graduate studies in directing. A collection of biographical sketches of American assassins and would-be assassins by James McKinley captured Gilbert’s interest. 14 The book contained excerpts from journals, poems, courtroom testimonies, and other fragments in which the assassins and would-be assassins explained the motivations for their crimes. As he flipped through the pages, Gilbert imagined how he could shape the material into a two-act musical with his own book, music, and lyrics. “My senses tingled as I turned the pages,” Gilbert reminisces. “This was something big.”15 He proposed his idea to William Turner, a former Carnegie Mellon classmate on whose senior directing project, a stage production of Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, Gilbert had worked in 1976. Turner had since become the founding member and artistic director of Theater Express, a small, professional (and now defunct) company in Pittsburgh, where, from September 1977, Gilbert had been employed as musical director. With Turner’s encouragement, and under his tutelage, Gilbert started adapting the assassins’ and attempted assassins’ stories for the musical stage.
Three months later, Gilbert had already written the first draft of his script. And, over the next year, he continued to rewrite and revise his new show entitled Assassins. Most of Gilbert’s plot unfolds in 1972 in Duluth, Minnesota, where a fictional assassin, known as “G.,” a downand-out drifter modeled on Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-63), struggles to adjust to civilian life after three years in Vietnam. (See Appendix 1 for the musical layout of Gilbert’s Assassins).
Gilbert explained, “I decided to use the events leading up to that momentous gunshot as the James McKinley, Assassination in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
Gilbert, “A Tale of Two Assassins.” narrative through-line for my musical.” 16 A second plotline takes place at Information Central, a hardly disguised analogue to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where Index, a female clerk, compares the psychological and socioeconomic profiles of Presidential assassins and would-be assassins to those of regular Americans. Her research leads her to G. But, before she can stop him from assassinating the President, Index realizes that G. is caught in a web of conspiracy. In the final scene, a motorcade appears and G. shoots. He misses his target, and, seconds later, an unseen marksman kills the President. Secret agents run in to apprehend G., but he protests and breaks free. The musical concludes with one of the agents pointing his gun at G.
and killing him.
Between scenes that develop G.’s storyline and Index’s assignment, Gilbert interwove slide projections; excerpts from diaries, poems, and newspaper accounts of real assassinations and assassination attempts; and vignettes that enact fictional and non-fictional circumstances surrounding eight of American history’s most notorious criminals. Five of them overlap the dramatis personae of Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins: John Wilkes Booth (1838-65), Charles Guiteau (1841-82), Leon F. Czolgosz (1873-1901), Joseph Zangara (1900-33), and Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme (b. 1948). Gilbert rounded out his cast with three other assassins and attempted assassins, John Schrank (1876-1943), Charles Manson (b. 1934), and Sirhan Sirhan (b. 1944) (plus G. who acts as a thinly veiled Oswald). In their places, Sondheim and Weidman included Samuel Byck (1930-74) and Sara Jane Moore (b. 1930), who had both escaped Gilbert’s attention, and John Hinckley (b. 1955), who would not commit his crime until 1981 (see Fig. 2). 17
Figure 2. A Comparison of the Casts of Principal Characters in Gilbert’s Assassins and Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins Gilbert’s Assassins Sondheim’s and Weidman’s Assassins
Interpolations in Gilbert’s Assassins interrupt the linear narrative and redirect the story from 1972 to 1881, 1865, 1957, and so on. Act I, scene 8, for instance, occurs in 1865 and brings to life an inebriated Booth, who, from his dressing room at Ford’s Theatre, uses his lines in Julius Caesar to comment on the current political climate. Act I, scene 6 happens sixteen years later and shines a spotlight on Guiteau, who, from the pulpit, describes himself as a servant of God and his crime as a political necessity. According to eyewitness historical accounts, in the moments before Guiteau was hanged in front of a crowd of 250, some of whom had paid $300 for the privilege, he sang a childish poem that he had composed earlier that morning. Gilbert included the text, which ended, “Glory hallelujah! I’m going to the Lordy!” as part of Guiteau’s scene.
Gilbert juxtaposed assassins and would-be assassins whose lifetimes didn’t overlap and thus could never have met: Booth and Zangara, for example, cross the boundaries of time to appear in church alongside Guiteau (I, 6), and Schrank, standing on a soap box, reads from his diary as G. lies on a cot concentrating on a newspaper article, presumably about Schrank (I, 13). 18 By breaking the constraints of chronological storytelling, Gilbert draws large-scale connections between the assassins’ and would-be assassins’ shared experiences. In so doing, they are made to seem far more human than they might first appear.
In about half of the scenes in Gilbert’s version, a character called only the “Fat Man” breaks the fourth wall to guide the audience from scenes that develop the main storyline to the assassins’ vignettes and back again. He also plays a pivotal role in the drama: the Fat Man recruits new assassins, including G., and manipulates them so that they act on their darkest dreams. In addition to appearing as “the man behind the assassins,” as the script describes him, the Fat Man assumes supporting roles in several other scenes and eras: in ca. 1972, he acts as a bartender at the Neptune Tavern, a dive bar, where G. nurses a drink (I, 3); in the hours before Guiteau’s death in 1882, the Fat Man dons a long robe to conduct a choir of assassins in singing Guiteau’s hymn, “Going to the Lordy” (I, 6); and, as a present-day night watchman, he startles Index in her office where she struggles to crack the conspiracy surrounding G. (I, 10).