Blog: Americana Unleashed: The Music of Assassins

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You’ll hear several familiar songs and musical styles when you see Assassins at Signature Theatre, including John Philip Sousa marches, folk songs, spirituals, a 1970s love ballad and more. Stephen Sondheim quotes some of the best-known pieces, styles and composers of the American musical heritage in his score, twisting them around his ironic lyrics to underscore the message of the show: the promise of the American Dream can be twisted to justify violence.

August 11 – September 29, 2019

Everybody’s Got the Right

This opening number commences with the curtain opening on a carnival shooting gallery with its proprietor barking an invitation to “C’mere and kill a president.” Sondheim adds a layer of irony into this scene by accompanying it with a version of James Sanderson’s “Hail to the Chief” played on a calliope, a type of fairground pipe organ that adds to the rundown carnival atmosphere of the scene.

The music is a traditional musical theater showtune à la Sondheim, with snappy lyrics that clue the audience into the murderous motivations of each of the assassins and highlight the central theme of their “right” to success and happiness as part of the American Dream.

The Ballad of Booth

A combination of a hoedown and a Civil War ballad, “The Ballad of Booth” also opens with “Hail to the Chief” – this time in its original form as Lincoln enters Ford’s Theatre.

The main part of the song presents two alternating and opposite viewpoints about why Booth committed his horrible crime, sung in two different musical styles that were popular in the 1860s. The Balladeer presents the mainstream American view of Booth in a hoedown section, while Booth sings a plaintive ballad to explain why he killed Lincoln.

How I Saved Roosevelt

In a similar structure to “The Ballad of Booth,” Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara and a group of bystanders present two opposite viewpoints on a scene sung in different musical styles. Zangara sings a slow tarantella, an Italian folk dance song, as he tries to explain why he shot at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He can barely get a word in edgewise around the bright, upbeat eyewitnesses to the attack who are telling their own stories to the press. You might recognize them singing the familiar tunes of “El Capitán” and “The Washington Post March,” two marches by John Philip Sousa that were popular at the time.

Unworthy of Your Love

Just when you think you’re only going to hear old folk songs and marches, Sondheim throws in a dreamy 70s pop ballad reminiscent of The Carpenters or Barry Manilow. “Unworthy of Your Love” is sung by John Hinckley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, two of the more contemporary assassins, as they express their love to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson respectively. The swoony synth strings, smooth sax runs, and loving lyrics actually seem sweet until you remember who’s singing them and why.

The Ballad of Guiteau

In “The Ballad of Guiteau,” Sondheim uses different upbeat musical styles to bring together all the various strands of Charles Guiteau’s erratic life and show his confidence about ascending to heaven: a revivalist spiritual to evoke his past as a member of the Oneida religious community; a cakewalk, a musical style often used in marches by Scott Joplin (note: the cakewalk has a long and complicated history with slavery – read more about that here here; and a Stephen Foster-type tune similar to the wildly popular “Camptown Races” to bring the audience into his time period musically. Guiteau’s refrain of “I Am Going to the Lordy” comes from a poem he wrote and recited on the gallows just before he was hanged for assassinating President James Garfield. Sondheim has said that it was only the second time that he’d directly quoted another writer in his work.