This show was classified as a ‘Revival’ at the Tony Awards that year, but it was quite clearly a ‘new’ show by the awards’ traditional standards, and it was this production that really catapulted the show into the public eye. This show is probably the most daring thing Stephen Sondheim ever did, and if you know anything about Sondheim, you know just how much that really says about this show.
The subject matter seems shocking enough on its surface, but the actual message (which understands the assassins’ motives and even sympathizes somewhat with their disenfranchised bitterness) is so subversive that many people (e.g. Ethan Mordden) deliberately and stubbornly misinterpret it so they don’t have to acknowledge that their idol Sondheim wrote a show they can’t accept (a similar thing happened with Sondheim’s other Nineties masterpiece, Passion).
This material would seem to be so fundamentally inaccessible as to have almost no audience at all, but unlike some of his imitators (I’m looking at you, Lachiusa), Sondheim cares about meeting his audience more or less halfway, and took care to leaven the incredibly disturbing subject matter with a heavy dose of comedy and one of his catchiest and most accessible scores.
However, light and catchy as it is, the score is also an amazingly impressive tour-de-force that ranks with the greatest work of Sondheim’s illustrious career. In just nine songs (plus one reprise at the finale), it gives a grand tour of America’s musical history, from vaudeville (“Everybody’s Got the Right”), to folk balladry (“The Ballad of Booth” and “The Ballad of Czolgosz”), to Sousa marches (“How I Saved Roosevelt”), to barbershop quartet (“Gun Song”), to hymns and cakewalks (“The Ballad of Guiteau” includes both), to pop music (the twistedly beautiful “Unworthy of Your Love”).
The book, on the other hand, is much more uneven…there are several awkward attempts at comedy, especially for Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, who are supposed to be hilariously insane but are mostly just annoying. However, much of the book is as brilliant as the score, including the powerful speech Leon Czolgosz gives about his horrific working conditions (“There is no other job!”), the surprisingly tender scene between Czolgosz and Emma Goldman, Sam Byck’s two stunning paranoid monologues, and especially the unbelievably brilliant final scene, which may just be the greatest single scene in any musical book ever. And in spite of a few scenes that don’t work at all, the overall message of the book as a whole is clearly and powerfully conveyed.
As stated, the piece shows a fair amount of genuine sympathy with its subjects, several of whom (especially John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, and Giuseppe Zangara) are almost portrayed as antiheroes. The portrayal of Czolgosz in particular comes surprisingly close to being unambiguously heroic, portraying him as a committed idealist who gave his life for a cause that most people today, however uncomfortable they are with his methods, would recognize as justifiable.
Given all this, Sondheim’s repeated decision to deny the show an open-ended run may be a wise one, but given the acclaim this show received in its long-awaited Broadway production, it seems clear it could have lasted quite a bit longer than its four-month limited engagement. At any rate, the show, previously a relatively obscure cult item that was only as well-known as it was because of who wrote it, finally won the widespread acclaim it had always deserved in this production, and that acclaim will surely keep it in the musical-theater repertoire for many years to come.