Spring 2000 Volume XXIX, No. 2

The Muze 'N the Hood
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

Caribbean Roundup
by Ray Allen

Unifying the Plotless Musical: Sondheim's Assassins
by James Lovensheimer

The Pianist's Space
by Marilyn Nonken

Behind the Beat
with Mark Tucker

New Ives Sources
by Carol K. Baron

ISAM Matters


Spreadin' Rhythm
by Edward A. Berlin

Ives and his Times
by Tom C. Owens

Custer's Just Intonation
by Noah Creshevsky

Carter's Reflections
by Judy Lochhead



Unifying the Plotless Musical:

Sondheim's Assassins

by James Lovensheimer

Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins challenges the ways in which American musicals have been traditionally unified. Instead of presenting a linear, Aristotelian plot, the musical is unified through a web of intertextual references.

The network of elements that links the musical’s elements is dense: familiar music, original music parodying familiar and popular styles, contemporaneous poems and other writings, original lyrics and speeches based on those poems and writings, and actual historical characters who often appear non-chronologically throughout various time periods. Without the tightly connected use of these elements, the show would be little more than an anecdotal revue. Through Sondheim’s and librettist John Weidman’s adroit and powerful deployment of intertextual references, Assassins is a highly organized and brilliantly composed unit.

Throughout Assassins, Sondheim uses the Presidential march “Hail to the Chief” as a unifying device as well as a way to emphasize certain scenes. The show opens with the tune transformed from common time to a 3/4 meter. Through this metric shift, he ironically connects a march typically associated with ritual and respect with the act of assassination. Sondheim also uses “Hail to the Chief” to introduce scenes that link characters from different time periods, such as that in which John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, Leon Czolgosz (assassin of McKinley), and Giuseppe Zangara (would-be assassin of FDR) all sit around a New York neighborhood bar. By defamiliarizing the Presidential march, Sondheim successfully uses it as an emblem of the show’s across-time bias. Many other songs in Assassins use a version of the opening motive from “Hail to the Chief” as Stephen Banfield has noted.1

Other musical works are directly quoted and often used ironically. Note, for instance, Sondheim’s use of Sousa’s music to frame a musical number about an anti-capitalist Zangara. In “How I Saved Roosevelt,” a suite of dances in 6/8 time, Sondheim contrasts the familiar and the traditionally American—the Sousa marches “El Capitan” and “The Washington Post”—with the Other—an ethnic peasant Tarantella for the immigrant Zangara. A moment of supreme irony arises when Zangara begins crying out for photographers at his execution: “Only capitalists get photographers,” he complains. At this point his melody and dance change from the Tarantella to a countermelody of the Sousa march, suggesting Zangara’s final, albeit momentary, nod to the appeal of capitalist self-promotion. Using another defamiliarization technique, Sondheim inverts the opening gesture of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to begin the refrain of a number titled “Another National Anthem.”

Sondheim’s incorporation of familiar songs is closely related to his best-known stylistic trait, the use of pastiche, which is itself a technique of intertextuality. In Assassins, Sondheim uses pastiche to maximum effect, employing the familiar vocabulary and comfortable genres of American popular music to give voice to disenfranchised and desperate characters from society’s underside. This is Sondheim’s technique throughout the show: defamiliarize popular music by putting it in the mouths of those whose acts we have been taught to deplore, but whose disenfranchisement, as we begin to see by the show’s end, is just as American as the comfortable space they inhabit. Popular songs are part of America’s collective memory: to most Americans, for instance, “Hail to the Chief ” connotes the importance of the Executive Branch of the government or the President of the United States; a Sousa march suggests zealous patriotism. When Sondheim uses popular song styles to subvert the very meanings they have borne for a century or more, he is making a drastic stylistic leap, one that disturbs and unsettles audiences. His use of this technique to unify Assassins is an ingenious trick.

Contemporary texts from the periods in which each assassin lived are woven throughout the musical. For instance, a number sung by Charles Guiteau, who was executed for assassinating President James Garfield in 1881, opens with the first lines of a poem he wrote on the day of his execution. “I am going to the Lordy” is hymn-like and unaccompanied, and the theme recurs between sections of the song. After the third section, Sondheim begins to alter Guiteau’s text. The rest of this number consists of a parlor-waltz narrative and a cakewalk to which the jaunty Guiteau climbs the scaffold. The waltz sounds as if it should be played on a harmonium, and its lyrics are derived from one of several folk songs about Guiteau. The folk song begins, “Come all ye Christian people, wherever you may be, / Likewise pay attention to these few lines from me....” Sondheim switches the speaker from Guiteau to a Balladeer but nonetheless begins, “Come all ye Christians, / And learn from a sinner....” Later, Sondheim conflates the folk song with Guiteau’s poem: one section, in which Guiteau swears “I shall be remembered!” comes from the folk song’s line “But when I’m dead and buried, you’ll all remember me.” The Balladeer’s second verse is drawn in part from Guiteau’s final address to his jury, a meandering diatribe. The third section of the number, Guiteau’s cakewalk, is an invention of Sondheim’s that utilizes the upbeat dance form to indicate Guiteau’s madness alongside his unrelenting optimism that everything he has done has been for a good cause. The cakewalk, originally a dance among American plantation slaves in which they mocked their masters, retains its ironic character as Guiteau sings “Look on the bright side” on the scaffold, all but momentarily blind to his fate. This single song, then, combines three popular song types—the parlor waltz, the cakewalk, and the hymn—with actual writings of Guiteau and mixes them with Sondheim’s paraphrasing of Guiteau, a folk song about Guiteau, and Sondheim’s original lyrics, resulting in a chilling yet somehow amusing portrait of a lunatic assassin in his last moments.

Perhaps to connect the idea of a firearm with homespun American values, Sondheim sets the following lyrics for a barbershop quartet in 3/4 time:

All you have to do is
Crook your little finger,
Hook your little finger
Simply follow through,
And look, your little finger
Can slow them down
To a crawl,
Big and small,
It took a little finger
No time
To change the world.

The song about Czolgosz is a hoe-down, and the mutually demented John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme sing of their unrequited loves—his for actress Jodie Foster and hers for Charles Manson—to “I’m Unworthy of Your Love,” a sweet, top 40-style ballad.

The opening and closing number, “Ev’rybody Has the Right to be Happy,” is a chirpy soft-shoe, and the John Wilkes Booth scene presents a combination of ballads, each reflective and touching while angry and bitter. In short, Sondheim’s musical vocabulary is vast, and it is organized into a tightly controlled series of references that propels Assassins.

By exploiting familiar genres of popular music to explore the desperate actions of characters from society’s fringes, Sondheim creates a sense of increasing tension and inevitability that replaces traditional, forward-looking plot development. Sondheim draws on far more than simply his audience’s awareness of the relationships of multiple texts: his use of intertextuality makes it possible to eschew the usual means of linear plot development while unifying the unpredictable actions of a disparate cast of characters.

–Ohio State University


Click on note number to return to its place in the text.

1 Stephen Banfield, Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals (University of Michigan Press, 1993), 57-58.




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