Assassins is a musical by Stephen Sondheim, which follows the lives of several men (and two women) who tried, and sometimes succeeded, to kill an American president. Among those highlighted are John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. The show ends with a song in which Lee Harvey Oswald, tormented, assassinates John F. Kennedy.
The show seems prima facie dark, and sordid, but the upbeat music casts a shadow of sarcastic, dark irony over the entire production, leading to the final message of the show - that political change is never brought about by violence, and those that believe to the contrary are, at best, insane. The sarcastic treatment of the assassins themselves, and the concept of assassination, is relentlessly mocked. The show beings with a carnival salesman selling pistols to each of the assassins, singing,
- "Hey kid, feelin' blue?
- Don't know, what to do?
- Hey pal, I mean you! Yeah!
- C'mere and kill a president!"
Another main theme is the enduring power of the American ideal. The Narrator sings as much in the opening song, "The Ballad of John Wilkes Booth,"
- "Someone tell the story, someone sing the song
- Every now and then the country goes a little wrong
- Every now and then a madman's bound to come along
- Doesn't stop the story... story's pretty strong.
- Doesn't change the song."
The "Song" is the song of America, and the spirit of the nation, which no assassin or bad president can ever harm, theorizes the Narrator. The show is, in this way, very patriotic, highlighting the strength of the American ideal, but its subject matter lends it to an assumption to the contrary.
The show had a very well received initial run in 1990 on Broadway, and a 1992 run in London. Both sold out. Despite this strongly patriotic theme, Broadway producers found the subject matter in extremely bad taste, and canceled a revival production slated for 2001, which they felt would be "too soon" after the attacks of September 11th.
The revival production, postponed until 2004, featured Neil Patrick Harris (of "Doogie Howser, M.D." fame) as the Narrator. It closed after a brief run, leading some to suspect that the dark subject matter excludes the show's popularity. The show is currently not scheduled for production. Regardless of its unpopularity, the songs are some of Sondheim's best, featuring his trademark ironic wit and subtle wordplay calculated at a political idea.