“Fifty years from now, they’ll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence.”
The lines come from a surreal scene in Assassins. Twenty-seven year-old John Wilkes Booth, ninety-eight years dead, is encouraging twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President John F. Kennedy.
John Weidman wrote those words some time in 1990, around twenty-seven years after that fateful day in Dallas. They’d first appear when Assassins had its world premiere production in January, 1991 off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.
And yet, as we this week mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy assassination, we see that these words, more than twenty-two years later, are still painfully accurate.
On February 13, 1991, when I attended a Wednesday matinee of Assassins, I was horrified by this scene. I’ll admit that I may have been oversensitive, because JFK was a god to me while he was president. He was elected the year I began high school, and while Lord knows his family was far richer than mine, I nevertheless identified with him because I too was raised Roman Catholic and hailed from Massachusetts.
Then came early afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a senior in high school, listening to a recruiter from Merrimack College telling me and my classmates why we should go there — when all of a sudden, Father Casey walked up to the podium and shooed the man away. I was astonished; yes, he was pretty boring, but let him finish, Father!
“Would you return to your classrooms,” the priest stated, rather than asked. “The president has been shot.”
So as I watched Assassins, I reacted in horror when seeing Booth and nine others – both assassins who succeeded in their missions and would-be assassins who did not — show up at the Texas Book Depository to convince Oswald to shoot the president.
How well I remember the potent silence in the audience as the scene unfolded, for virtually all of us in attendance had been alive for the actual unforgettable incident. But when Oswald actually took the shot, I can still see, in the row in front of me and a bit to left, actor Thom Sesma’s hands involuntarily leap up and cover his face in horror. And he wasn’t the only one.
I vowed that I would never again put myself through that scene as long as I lived.
Three weeks later Marilyn Egol, RCA Victor’s crackerjack publicist, invited me to the recording of Assassins’ original cast album. Of course I agreed, as most every other theatre writer did — which is why Egol had to ration the recording session, allowing each of us an hour or so to hear the album being made.
And wouldn’t you know that during my appointed hour, the cast was recording “November 22, 1963,” as the scene was officially called. What’s more, I had to hear it again and again and again, for a record producer rarely accepts a first take.
For a solid hour, I heard and watched Jace Alexander’s Lee Harvey Oswald repeatedly listen to Debra Monk’s Sara Jane Moore tell him, “We’re your family,” followed by Greg Germann’s John Hinckley adding, “I respect you,” Jonathan Hadary’s Guiteau remarking, “I envy you,” and Victor Garber’s Booth demanding, “Make us proud of you.”
Okay, I had to write a story, and had to endure the session — but that, I vowed again, would be the last time I’d hear “November 22, 1963.” So when I got the cast album some weeks later, I played it until I heard the soft country music that started that scene. I stopped it, then programmed the disc to play tracks 1-7. It’s the way I would listen to Assassins for the next three years.
In 1994, I was invited to see Assassins at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and then afterwards teach a master class on Sondheim to the students who’d performed the show. I was certainly looking forward to the production and the class, but I knew that if I wanted to do a good job, I’d have to become acquainted with “November 22, 1963.”
I played it for the first time.
And then I played it again and again, as I came to the conclusion that this is one of the best-written scenes in the history of musicals.
There isn’t an ounce of fat in it; every one of John Weidman’s words counts. Listen and see if you don’t agree.
Oh, this week it will be especially painful to experience, but the power and brilliance of the writing cannot be denied. Bless RCA Victor record producer Jay David Saks for including every word of it. In 2004, when Assassins had its Broadway premiere and received another recording on another label, “November 22, 1963” was horribly truncated.
And I, who once avoided this scene, was furious that it had been mangled. Leaving out a syllable was an artistic miscarriage of justice. To such a vivid, imaginative and important scene, attention must be paid – four words, incidentally, that show up in the scene.
When I saw the production the Conservatory, an incident happened that I’ll never forget. This involved the singing of “Another National Anthem,” in which the characters expressed their intense dissatisfaction with American life. Stephen Sondheim purposely wrote an ugly, dissonant melody to reflect the anger that these people felt at not having the American dream delivered to them while it had wended its way into other homes.
The song wasn’t even halfway done when, in the middle of Row D, four women decided they couldn’t take these madmen up there one second longer. They got up, began to leave — and when the talented kids saw this, they increased their volume, intensified their craziness, played directly to them, stared them down and matched the ladies step for step until the poor souls stumbled onto the aisle, grateful for this ribbon of escape.
I wondered what they would have thought had they stayed to see “November 22, 1963.”
Listening to Assassins this week will be remarkably poignant. “You want to shoot a president?” is among the first lyrics in the show. “How the union can never recover” and “No, the country is not what it was” comes in the second song. And then, in that final cut, Booth predicts that the Kennedy assassination will bring “grief beyond imagining.”
He was right.
That Sondheim decided to make this one of his shortest scores was a wise decision; dwelling too long on assassins could be far too much to take. And yet, let’s not forget that, yes, this is one of Sondheim’s strongest scores, too.
Note that in “How I Saved Roosevelt,” all sing that if Giuseppe Zangara had succeeded, the nation would have been “left bereft of FDR.” Not only do “left” and “bereft” rhyme, but the first two initials of Roosevelt’s name do, too, because we smush them together to make the sound of “EFFED-dee-are.”
“Unworthy of Your Love,” in which John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme respectively pledge devotion to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, does seem to be a pop ballad from the ‘70s. That master orchestrator Michael Starobin added a wailing sax is just right for the melody.
“The Ballad of Czolgosz” has an Aaron Copland-esque feel without losing any of Sondheim in it. And “Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy)” has one of Sondheim’s perkiest melodies and one of his few life-affirming lyrics.
See? He can write that way when he wants to.
Of course, that he’s being totally ironic is hardly beside the point.