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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Everybody's Got the Right

I've already mentioned that I'm a Sondheim fanatic. Last week I bought a soundtrack to one of his shows, Assassins. Take a look at the first verse of one of the songs:

"Everybody's got the right to be happy,
Don't be mad, life's not as bad as it seems,
If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height,
Everybody's got the right to their dreams."

At first glance, this seems to be a lovely, inspiring, uplifting song, right? Okay, now that I've got you lulled into a false sense of security, take a look at the second verse.

"Everybody's got the right to be different.
If you wanna be different.
Even though at times they go to extremes.
Anybody can prevail, everybody's free to fail,
No one can be put in jail for their dreams."

Suddenly, something seems a little more sinister, doesn't it?
In truth, this is the finale of a show which is extremely creepy and sad, but also terribly thought-provoking. As the name of the show might suggest, Assassins is about all the people who have attempted to assassinate a president throughout history. From the successes (Booth, Oswald, etc.) to the failures ("Squeaky" Fromme, Zangara, etc.) they're all here.
...typical musical fare, right? Heh.
But anyway, the thing that I find so cool about this show is the way it looks at these historical misfits. The show definitely doesn't cast the assassins in a good light, but it doesn't make them out to be the villians, exactly, either. What it does is examine their motivations--and it highlights something in particular. Each one of these people feels cheated out of something they thought they were promised. The American ideals made them a vow, and for whatever reason, they feel that vow has been broken. So they set out to right the wrongs and settle the score.
Just look at those lyrics again. The words are ones we've heard every day since we first sat down in American history class--as Americans, we're promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the way that the assassins have distorted the Amercian dream is positively eerie.
I talked before about how being an artist means that you look at the world a little differently. Assassins is a perfect example of this--try stepping back from something as world-shaking as Lincoln's assassination, and looking at it from the sidelines. Imagine forgetting about the immorality of the act for a minute and instead saying, "Why did Booth do that?" And if you can imagine that, try going one step further and saying, "How can I put this into lyrics and music without making light of it?" Sondheim accomplishes all of this beautifully, and when the song "The Ballad of Booth" comes on, you *almost* feel sorry for Booth--ensconsed in a barn, in pain, manically believing that history will vindicate him, before shooting himself dead rather than giving himself up to the authorities.
And then there's the song "Something Just Broke." This is the only song that doesn't directly involve any of the assassins--actually, it wasn't even in the original production. It was added for the London production, and was included in the 2004 Broadway revival. In this song, several citizens recount where they were and what they were up to when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I get tears in my eyes when I hear these lyrics:

"Something just left a little mark.
Something just went a little dark.
Something just went.
And I wondered--
I was scared--
What would follow...
Something to be mended.
Made me wonder who we are...
Something we'll have to weather--
It was seeing all those torches...
Bringing us all together--
He was me...
He was us...
--If only for a moment...
I'll remember it forever...
Nothing has really ended."

Goosebump-inducing stuff. Even though I wasn't alive when it happened, Sondheim's words and heart-aching musical themes make me feel the fear, the sorrow, the absolute uncertainty of what might come next.
If you ask me, this song is a great memorial for J.F.K.
If this show is ever in your neighborhood, go see it. It's worth it.