Wednesday, December 6, 2023

ReDISCoveries: Assassins (Original Cast Recording)

ReDISCoveries: Assassins (Original Cast Recording)

Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. This week’s entry is about the 1991 original off-Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins.

Although Assassins is one of Sondheim’s later works, it was one of the very first to seize my attention when I started really exploring his catalog as a college freshman. Among his earlier works, I was really only familiar with (and obsessed with) Sweeney Todd at the time, so when I saw this recording of a brand-new Sondheim show at Tower Records on West 4th Street, I didn’t hesitate to spend some of my meager funds.

I could not have made a better choice. With lots of variety and some catchy tunes, I found the songs very easy to enjoy even on the first listen (which hadn’t been true of Sweeney Todd). Even better, as a young person cultivating my own cynical outlook on history and politics, the show’s exploration of America’s dark side was right up my alley. This combination of accessible music and challenging themes made this CD an immediate and lasting favorite, and it’s one of a few discs that I literally listened to until I wore it out.

I decided to revisit the original recording for a couple of reasons, aside from the nostalgia factor. One is the orchestra: as per the liner notes, orchestrator Michael Starobin leapt at the opportunity to present the show in a new light by expanding his Playwrights Horizons trio into a 33-piece ensemble, by far the largest orchestra to be heard on any recording of the show. In some cases, as in Sondheim’s tributes to two other great American composers (see below), these expanded textures make a huge difference.

But I also gravitate to this recording for something that’s not on it: “Something Just Broke.” Written for the subsequent London production and included in every version since then, I’ve never loved the song or its placement in the show, for reasons I’ll touch on later in the review.

In Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim wrote that, of all his musicals, Assassins is the one that most perfectly realized the creators’ original intent in writing the show. As someone who has admired the work - and particularly loved this specific recording - for my entire adult life, I am in no position to disagree.


I usually assign stars to mark the songs I particularly like, but I don't think that makes much sense here. If you twist my arm, I'd have to say "The Ballad of Booth" is my favorite, but I think all of the songs are worthy of stars. “The Gun Song” and “The Ballad of Czolgosz” are on one CD track, but I separate them here because they’re clearly two different songs.

Everybody’s Got the Right: The score begins, perhaps inevitably, with an iteration of “Hail to the Chief,” which not only hints at the show’s subject matter, but also provides motivic figures for several songs to come. (Think, for example, of the melodies associated with the phrases “bring a nation to its knees” in “The Ballad of Booth” or “Jodie, Jodie” in “Unworthy of Your Love” - these can be matched with little sequences from “Hail to the Chief.”).

The opening song itself is an economical tour de force, with its pithy invocation of the show’s theme of dangerous disillusionment and rapid-fire introduction of most of the show’s characters, culminating of course with their pioneer, John Wilkes Booth (Victor Garber). The tone of the music alternates effectively between gloomy and ill-tempered as the Proprietor (William Parry, below right, center) interacts with the individual assassins, and bright and optimistic as he assures them that “everybody’s got the right to be happy.”

When I first heard the CD I thought it was a little awkward that the show introduces two different narrator-adjacent characters in its first two songs, but I’ve come to appreciate the meaning of this: the Proprietor and the soon-to-be-introduced Balladeer (Patrick Cassidy, below left) are pulling in opposite directions, one towards rebellion and chaos and the other towards more traditional American ideals. I’ve always wished the Proprietor had a little more to do later in the show, perhaps an appearance in the verbal battle between Balladeer and assassins in “Another National Anthem.”

The Ballad of Booth: The first of several complex numbers in the score, this song deftly exploits the juxtaposition of at least three musical styles. The balladeer’s platitudes about American tragedy and recovery that begin and end the song (“someone tell the story…”) are set to something akin to contemporary soft pop. When he turns his attention to Booth specifically, the music becomes twangy and folksy while the words are glib and ironic. Finally, Booth gets some of the tenderest, most conventionally beautiful music Sondheim has ever written, an even deeper layer of irony that cajoles us, for just a moment, into sympathizing with the villain of the piece. Garber and Cassidy are flawless in their respective roles here.

How I Saved Roosevelt: This is one of those numbers where the large orchestra pays dividends: I always thought it was a particularly stirring moment when the thin radio broadcast that introduces the show gives way to the lush, brash statement of Sousa’s El Capitan march. Sondheim may not have had to write as much music for this song, which borrows from some other famous marches as well, but he more than makes up for it with some hilarious, pointed, and amazingly detailed lyrics. Sondheim and Weidman somehow manage to create several vivid characters almost out of thin air, with each bystander boasting in his or her own way about their dubious contributions to history. (I’ve always loved how one of them anxiously blurts out “she means Roosevelt” to make sure we know he wasn’t blowing any kisses.) 

The other side of this, of course, is the bitter ranting of Zangara (Eddie Korbich), whose music is flippant and resigned. It’s a hallmark of this musical that, even as the authorial voice clearly must condemn each of the assassins’ violent choices, most of them are given some sensible-sounding things to say before they die or fade to obscurity.

The Gun Song: Yet another song that relies on the juxtaposition of musical styles, this song moves quickly between Czolgosz’s (Terrence Mann) morose obsessiveness, Booth’s upbeat appraisal of the utility of violence, Guiteau’s (Jonathan Hadary) unsettling goofiness, and Moore’s (Debra Monk) manic panic. All the while the song gradually builds up towards its intense barbershop-quartet climax before collapsing back to the depths from which it began. As I type all that it sounds impossibly chaotic, but of course the master at the peak of his game makes it seem like an organic whole, the most natural-sounding thing in the world.

The Ballad of Czoglosz: I’ve always loved the undulating, dense, almost mechanical-sounding orchestral texture that begins this song; it’s one of those things that reminds me of something that I’ve never quite been able to place. It somehow evokes a naive faith in progress, appropriate to the song’s setting at the Pan-American Expo. One of the simpler songs in the show, sung entirely by the Balladeer, its catchy melody and “There Was an Old Lady”-style cumulative lyric once again serve as ironic commentary on a now-forgotten low point in American history. There’s an irreconcilable clash between the Czolgosz’s version making one’s way to the head of the line and the Balladeer’s own appeal to that pat turn of phrase.

Unworthy of Your Love: This superficially lovely torch song, a ‘70s-era pop pastiche, belies any claim that Sondheim can’t write pretty melodies; he’s perfectly willing and able to do it when a scene calls for it. Especially if the result is wickedly funny, true to character, and slightly perverse (ok, perhaps more than slightly). I don’t have too much more to say about it, but I’ll admit that it took me a long while to notice a “hidden rhyme” in the lyrics (along the lines of the laugh/caftan pattern in “The Ladies Who Lunch”): in the first verse, Hinckley (Greg Germann) inconspicuously rhymes sky with I, and Fromme (Annie Golden) follows suit in the second verse by rhyming god with the first syllable of body.

The Ballad of Guiteau: Sondheim once again makes use of several familiar musical styles to tell the story of Guiteau’s final moments. The Balladeer, of course, narrates Guiteau’s trial and conviction in a neutral folk-ish style; in his own sections, Guiteau alternates between optimism (sung and danced to a jaunty cakewalk) and penitence (a plodding spiritual). Chaos here is a feature rather than a bug, as Guiteau’s mental state flickers to fear and then determination as he ascends the gallows. Kudos to Hadary for the juiciest interpretation of this song that I’ve heard so far.

Another National Anthem: The ethereal voices of the (mostly) dead assassins, complete with celestial “ahs” from the chorus, finally express their frustration with various unmet expectations: American society (embodied by the Balladeer) failed them in their pursuit of happiness, and their acts of violence (encouraged by the Proprietor) failed to provide relief. This leads to a final showdown between the Balladeer and the assassins, led by Byck (Lee Wilkof); of course, they decisively reject his point of view. The song itself is a metaphor for this rejection, as they vow to replace the traditional national song with their own disruptive one in a desperate attempt to make themselves heard. 

November 22, 1963: This long non-musical scene is wisely included on the recording. Without it, the ending wouldn’t make much sense, and listeners would be left wondering why Lee Harvey Oswald (Jace Alexander) barely appears. The tension comes through on the recording as clearly as it does on stage, and in all my years of listening to the CD I’ve never skipped this track.

You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right: The final track picks up at the end of this book scene, as the assassins’ underscored promises of fame develop into a cacophony of demented voices urging Oswald to kill the president. In the most thrilling moment on the CD, the voices stop, the shot is heard, and we immediately hear the grandest statement yet of “Hail to the Chief.” This is another moment when the huge orchestra pays off, making it radiantly clear that this is a tribute in style and scale to the climactic variation of the “Simple Gifts” theme from Copland’s Appalachian Spring, complete with bitonal touches that would be lost with a smaller orchestra. (My main issue with “Something Just Broke” is that it destroys this moment that has so captivated me for more than three decades. The idea behind the song is obviously sound, and there’s nothing wrong with a low-key meditation to provide variety in an otherwise raucous show, but its placement necessarily dissipates the tension built up in the scene leading to Oswald’s choice to pull the trigger.)

The show ends where it began, with a final statement of “Everybody’s Got the Right” from all the assassins. This time Oswald is included; his line, stating that a free country “means you get to connect,” resonates with Sondheim lyrics going back to West Side Story, where being a Jet meant that “you’re never disconnected,” up to Sunday in the Park with George, where the protagonist urges himself: “connect, George, connect!”


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