The author of the musical on which Assassins is based reflects on the story of its evolution
by Charles Gilbert
A version of this article appeared in The Sondheim Review. Pictures are from the 1979 Theater Express of the "other" Assassins. First photo: Alex Wright as "G.," my sad-sack Oswald clone. Second photo: Jed Allen Harris as the Manson-esque "Rock Singer."
A phone call from a friend tipped me off when Meryle Secrest's book was published two years ago. "Did you see the new Sondheim biography?" he asked. "Take a look at page 361." Seeing my name in that account of the genesis of the Sondheim-Weidman musical "Assassins," I felt slightly giddy at the thought of having become a part of theatrical history, a minor supporting character whose story was now a footnote to great man's career.
Back in November of 1977, I was a young director and composer fresh out of grad school, searching for a subject for an original work which would enable me to bring together many of the elements of the musical theater which excited me. Among the then current musicals which had me in its thrall was Pacific Overtures, a work whose fusi on of theatrical inventiveness and intellectual penetration seems to me the very model of a modern major musical.
Browsing in the stacks of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, I found a collection of biographical sketches of different individuals who had either killed or attempted to kill an American President. The book contained bits of verse, journal excerpts, courtroom testimony and other fragments in which the assassins, in their own words, attempted to explain what led them to commit their crimes. My senses tingled as I turn the pages: this was something big. I drafted a short proposal for William Turner, artistic director of Theater Express, a Pittsburgh "alternative" theater for whom I was working as music director. With Bill's encouragement, and under his direction, my idea grew to a quirky, full-length musical entitled Assassins, produced by Theater Express, first in a workshop and then in a mainstage production in 1979, funded in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation's New American Plays program.
"Step right up!" shouted a sideshow barker. "Hit the Prez and win a prize!" In a memorable scene from that production, the stage was transformed into a surrealistic shooting gallery, where politicans, secret agents and bystanders jerked around the stage like figures in a demented cuckoo-clock. Gathered at the shooting gallery were many characters whose names will be familiar to those who know the Sondheim-Weidman Assassins: John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppi Zangara and Squeaky Fromme were included, along with Arthur Bremer (whose memorable line "My penis made me do it!" is from a poem in his book An Assassin's Diary), Sirhan Sirhan and John Schrank. Not present were John Hinckley, who hadn't happened yet, and Sam Byc k, who somehow escaped my attention.
Also conspicuously (but significantly) absent from the cast was Lee Harvey Oswald, whose desparate act on that infamous November morning remains a vivid memory for many Americans. Unquestionably, in any drama about assassination in America, Oswald has to be the star, and though he failed to appear among the dramatis personae in my musical, his story turned out to be the very heart of the piece.