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«Assassins Music & Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM Book by JOHN WEIDMAN Based on an idea by CHARLES GILBERT, JR. Directed by TERRENCE J. NOLEN On the F. ...»

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Music & Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM


Based on an idea by CHARLES GILBERT, JR.


On the F. Otto Haas Stage

September 13 - October 21, 2007

Additional copies of this study guide are available online at www.ardentheatre.org.


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by John Weidman

Directed by: Terrence J. Nolen











This darkly comedic musical jumps in time and place to cover nine of the assassination attempts on the president of the United States, as well as several imagined meetings between the nine assassins. The play opens in a fairground shooting gallery where the Proprietor hawks the benefits of killing a president. One by one, assassins from different time periods including John Hinckley, Leon Czolgosz, Samuel Byck, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Sara Jane Moore, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme purchase guns from him, and their myriad of varied motivations are alluded to. John Wilkes Booth enters last, introduced by the Proprietor as ammunition is distributed. Offstage a voice announcing Abraham Lincoln’s arrival at the infamous theater is heard. Booth excuses himself, a shot rings out, and Booth is heard to shout the infamous line “Sic semper tyrannis!”, which translated from Latin means ‘Thus always to tyrants’.

In the next scene the Balladeer tells of John Wilkes Booth’s story in the form of a ballad. Booth writes his lofty rationale for murder in his diary as the Balladeer interjects that Booth’s motives had more to do with his failure as an actor and other personal problems than any ideals. Pursued by Union soldiers Booth throws his diary to the Balladeer, who reads aloud Booth’s self-justifications as Booth commits suicide. The Balladeer then concludes that Booth was a madman who ultimately failed, as in his attempt to destroy Lincoln he instead elevated him to martyrdom.

Booth, Czolgosz, Hinckley, Zangara and Guiteau gather in a bar. Byck enters, looking for Richard Nixon, then exits upon learning that he has not been seen. Guiteau toasts the American Dream, telling of his ambition to become Ambassador to France.

Zangara complains about his stomach pains, and Booth irrationally suggests fixing them by shooting the President. Hinckley accidentally almost breaks a beer bottle and Czolgosz flies into a rage, describing the horrors he sees in the bottle factory he works in, and how many men die or are injured to make a bottle like the one Hinckley has just almost shattered. Booth urges him to take control of his fate, and to break the bottle himself, but Czolgosz cannot.

Later, a radio reports that Zangara has tried to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Five bystanders are interviewed in turn, each telling a different personal versions of the event as each one is convinced that he or she personally saved the President. From an electric chair Zangara sings his refusal to be afraid and that he hadn't cared who he killed as long as it was one of the men who control the money. Outraged that there are no photographers at his execution, which he attributes to being what he calls an "American nothing", Zangara is electrocuted.

We meet Leon Czolgosz as he listens, absolutely enraptured, to a speech by American anarchist Emma Goldman. When she finishes he introduces himself to her and declares his love, but she tells him to redirect his passion to the fight for social justice.

She accepts his offer to accompany her to the train station to catch her train, but protests at his offer to carry her bag saying “we do not make slaves of each other,” but he insists.

Fromme and Moore, the two women in the pack, meet on a park bench as Fromme smokes a joint and speaks of mass murderer Charles Manson, recounting their meeting and declaring herself to be his lover and slave. Juggling her purse and a variety of junk food including a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Moore divulges details of her life including that she is an informant for the FBI (or used to be), has been a CPA, had five husbands and three children, and suffered from amnesia. Fromme declares that Manson will emerge as king of a new order and make her his queen. Moore says she thinks she knew Manson when he was younger. The two women bond on the topic of different relationships (such as father, daughter) and the scene ends as Fromme teaches Moore to give Colonel Sanders the “evil eye” to try and kill him. They mock shooting the bucket with their pistols and dissolve to hysterical laughter on the floor.

Czolgosz appears, reflecting on how many men die in the mines, the iron mills and the steel forge just to make one gun. Booth, Guiteau and Moore enter one by one and join him in a barbershop quartet in which they point out one gun's power to change the world. Czolgosz decides his gun will claim one more victim: the President. We then see Czolgosz at the 1901 Pan American Exposition watching William McKinley shake visitors' hands in the Temple of Music Pavilion. The Balladeer sings a ballad telling of Czolgosz’s motivations as he joins the receiving line, gun in pocket. When Czolgosz reaches McKinley he shoots him.

Samuel Byck sits in his rundown home, wearing a dirty Santa suit and drinking a Yoo-Hoo. He talks into a tape recorder, preparing a message to Leonard Bernstein, telling the composer that he can save the world by writing more love songs. Then President William McKinley Byck accuses Bernstein of ignoring him, just like the other celebrities he has tried to contact and goes into a vicious rampage about the unfairness of the hierarchy in the world and his lonely, disheveled place among it.

Squeaky Fromme sneaks up on John Hinckley as he sits playing his guitar in front of a framed picture. She asks for a song and he says he only knows his own work. As Fromme begins asking about the girl in the picture, Hinckley gets defensive until finally Fromme takes the picture and uncovers the truth about his “girlfriend,” Jodie Foster. She throws it in his face how her lover is a real person, alive and in the flesh to her while also viciously mocking him on being in love with a movie star that doesn’t even know who he is. He becomes irate and orders her out of his room. After she leaves, he sings of his plans to win the actress’s love. Fromme returns to join him, singing of her love for Manson. Hinckley begins to shoot at a photograph of Ronald Reagan projected on the wall but the picture keeps reappearing. The Proprieter returns to mock Hinckley, quoting Reagen's famous quips about the assassination, as Hinckley fires and fires, missing each time.

Charles Guiteau bounds onstage in his generally good natured mood and begins to flirt with Sarah Jane Moore, giving her marksmanship tips before trying to kiss her. She is not interested, however, and after a few moments she finally leaves him alone-much to his surprise. The scene immediately changes to Guiteau’s meeting with James Garfield at the train station. Guiteau asks to be made Ambassador to France in accordance with the spoils system (in which those who supported the president during the election were rewarded with federal jobs). When he is rebuffed and mocked, he shoots the President.

Immediately following, Guiteau is at the foot of the gallows singing a poem, written that morning, that he calls "I Am Going To The Lordy". The Balladeer describes his trial and execution in ballad form as Guiteau cheerfully sashays up the stairs to the gallows, optimistically singing of heaven. Guiteau is hanged after claiming hauntingly that he will be remembered.

Next the scene begins with a rogue bullet and a cry from Moore. Squeaky enters and finds that Moore has shot her own dog accidentally. Right afterward, her nine year old son enters squealing and yelling. Squeaky Fromme gives him the fifty cents he is asking for and he runs out. Squeaky then turns and asks Moore why she brought her dog and her son to an assassination. We learn here a bit more insight into Moore President Gerald Ford when she tells Fromme she would not leave the dog at home alone and that “school was out.” Then the women prepare for their presidential plan, fumbling about as Moore drops all of her bullets. President Gerald Ford enters and humbly tries to help her collect the bullets. As he is leaving, Fromme tries to shoot him but her gun does not go off. Then, in a desperate attempt to fulfill their plot, Moore simply throws her bullets to the back of him and laments their failure.

Samuel Byck is on his way to the airport to hijack a plane, which he plans to crash into the White House. He records a message addressed to Richard Nixon, complaining about contemporary American life and announces that killing a President is the only solution.

The assassins reunite and begin to demand their prizes of the Proprieter. The Balladeer appears and tells them that their actions were never the solution to their problems and that no prizes are offered for killing the president. The assassins realize that they will never get their prizes and begin singing of a new National Anthem about being dispossessed by the American Dream, their song increasing in volume and force until they beat the Balladeer to the ground.

Lee Harvey Oswald appears, preparing to kill himself in a storeroom on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22 1963. Booth interrupts him like a shadow out of nowhere and begins to claim of how well he knows him. He then tries to fill his head with the idea that killing the president of the United States is all he needs to solve his problems. Summoning the other assassins from the shadows, Booth tells Oswald that by joining them he will become part of the American experience, but Oswald adamantly and fearfully refuses. Booth tells him that in the future, when Hinckley’s room is searched, Oswald's biographies will be found assuring his permanent mark in all of history. Oswald is terrified and thoughts are racing through his head as he again tries to leave, but Booth pleads for help from the other assassin. Zangara then addresses him passionately in Italian, a speech translated by the other assassins, imploring him to act so their own acts can come alive again, reiterating that the bloodshed will not only empower him, but also empower them. As the assassins sing, imploring Oswald to act, he stands at the window where the motorcade for President Kennedy will be passing and shoots.

The scene shifts slowly from a rousing celebration of Oswald to several Americans recounting their personal accounts of where they were and what they were doing when they heard President Kennedy had been shot, and the sinking feeling experienced by all of them that nothing would ever be the same.

The assassins reappear, now with Oswald in their ranks. They are united as a President John F. Kennedy force and restate their motives with a final firing of their guns at the audience.

About the Playwright Stephen Joshua Sondheim, born March 22, 1930, is commonly known as his generation’s leading writer of the stage musical. Born in New York he grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania after his parents divorced.

His mother’s neighbor was Oscar Hammerstein, who helped influence Sondheim to become a composer.

Sondheim has a clearly discernable style, noticeable for his fondness of elegant language and skewed harmonies and a tendency to densely literate lyrics, but even still it is his versatility that impresses, ranging from the explosive band style score of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ (1964) to the Orient-influenced music of ‘Pacific Overtures’ (1976) and the elegant waltzes of ‘A Little Night Music’ (1973). Sondheim is said to have reinvented the musical during his partnership with producer-director Hal Prince, creating several of the centuries most innovative and experimental musicals. As choreographer Michael Bennett once said, however, you have to know what the rules are before you can break them, and Sondheim knows America’s cultural heritage better than anyone. His numerous awards attest to his success, including an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (seven in total; more than any other composer), multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. His most famous scores include (as composer/lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Many of his works have previously been produced at the Arden Theatre Company, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. Currently, Sondheim is wrapping production of the movie version of his hit Sweeney Todd, slated for release in December 2007.

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