The Killing Of Presidents

Hit the Prez and Win a Prize reads the sign over a carnival shooting gallery. The targets are portraits of all the U.S. presidents, and the "customers" are all people who've killed, or tried to kill, the chief executive. This is the opening scene in Stephen Sondheim's new musical, "Assassins," the most audacious, far out and grotesque work in his career. With book writer John Weidman, Sondheim has written a show that will disturb many, enrage some and even move others.

The "heroes" of "Assassins" are John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln in 1865; Charles Guiteau, whose victim in 1881 was Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who murdered McKinley in 1901; Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to assassinate Roosevelt in 1933; Kennedy's killer Lee Harvey Oswald; Samuel Byck, who tried to kill Nixon in 1974; Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who made attempts on Ford in 1975, and John Hinckley, who shot Reagan in 1981. Cataloged so baldly, the frequency of assaults on our presidents is startling, and "Assassins" asked "Why?"

But--a musical? Of course, Sondheim would write a musical about amoebas, or aardvarks. His assassins are acts in a horrific vaudeville of American pathology. The "pioneer" is Booth, the Shakespearean actor who after dispatching Lincoln turns up as a kind of dark angel of assassination. Sitting in a saloon reading Variety, Booth advises Zangara that the best way to cure his stomach trouble is to kill FDR. This black comedy is topped by Squeaky Fromme, one of Charles Manson's girls, and housewife Sara Moore, who outstumble Ford himself, succeeding only in killing a pet dog. Sam Byck tapes an insanely angry (and funny) message to Leonard Bernstein, explaining his plan to kill Nixon by crashing a jetliner on the White House. The megalomaniac Guiteau shoots Garfield, crying out, "I want to be ambassador to France!" At the climax all the other assassins show up at the Texas School Book Depository, begging Oswald to "empower" them--redeem their place in history--by killing JFK.

You can swallow the savage comedy, but not the show's moral fuzziness. Czolgosz, a poor worker, kills McKinley out of social anger, but most of the others are psychopaths pure if not simple. Linking them with an anthem, sung by an omnipresent Balladeer, about how "Everybody's got the right to their dreams" is a pretty pathetic rationale for the complex questions that Sondheim does raise. Nor has Sondheim found an effective musical voice for his assassins. The show calls for the indelible melodic shapes and angles of a Kurt Weill, or of Sondheim himself in "Sweeney Todd." The song that Hinckley sings to his dream girl, Jodie Foster, should be crazily moving, not just a flat parody of smoochy sentimentality.

The first Sondheim show to officially open off-Broadway, "Assassins" has been brilliantly directed by Jerry Zaks at Playwrights Horizons, where the small stage expands with theatrical energy and the remarkable set designs of Loren Sherman. The cast is tight, sharp, fiercely funny--notably Lee Wilkof's frightening Byck, Annie Golden's madly masochistic Squeaky and Jonathan Hadary's grandiloquent Guiteau. Hadary's song and dance on the gallows is the one place where everything comes together in a bloodcurdling irony beyond politics and pathology.