Not the Whole Story

Plays and musicals have been written about some pretty strange topics. But a musical about presidential assassins? Sounds a little over the top, doesn't it? And yet if you caught the Tony Awards ceremony this summer, which honors the best of Broadway, you saw the musical Assassins win five awards, including one for Best Revival of a Musical. The play by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim looks at the history of presidential assassinations, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. And it's actually been around for some time. It started off-Broadway in 1990 and was scheduled to make its Broadway debut in the fall of 2001. But after September 11, the show's producers realized that America wasn't exactly in the mood right then, and so they postponed it. As it happened, America still wasn't in the mood when it finally made it to Broadway last spring. Despite the awards and good reviews, the show ran only a few months, a testimony to the fact that Americans still have some good taste. But despite the tepid response, there are those who think the show has something important to say about our society. Drew Trotter, a critic and director of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia, points out the show's emphasis that "everybody has a right to be happy." He writes, "Part of the problem is that Assassins gets it so right. We are all filled with a poison that craves attention . . . and we experience so many blessings in this land that we too often think they are due to our hard work, our ingenuity, our persistence, our 'basic goodness.' It is a small step indeed to thinking that they are thus our 'right.'" So each of the assassins in the play becomes a killer because the American Dream has let him down in one way or another. If "Everyone has a right to be happy," and you're not happy, why not kill a president? Or so the cynical reasoning goes. Theater critic Mark Steyn wrote in his review of the show, "As Big Ideas go, this one barely limps to the end of the first page of the script." Steyn thinks that giving all these killers the same motivation is far too simplistic, and he has a good point, but there's much more. Trotter takes a different angle and makes an even more profound point. Assassins, says Trotter, tells only half the story. It's very clear on the problem, but the show doesn't "offer any hope of change or solution for effecting . . . change." And there is a solution that Assassins never touches on. Trotter concludes, "The solution is not found in some right we have to be happy, but in . . . the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ." It's true, as Weidman and Sondheim have it, that even our best dreams can drive us to selfishness, blaming others, and worse. But they do not see that cynicism is not the only possible response to corruption. The greatest response is the oldest theme in literature and in life: redemption. And, of course, ultimate redemption is in Jesus Christ, wholly undeserved, as our perceived "right to happiness" is. But this redemption is nonetheless real, and that's why we have hope. A story that misses the possibility of redemption just can't be a complete story. For further reading and information: Drew Trotter, "Everybody's Got the Right to Their Dreams," Praxis, Summer 2004. (Not available online.) Learn more about the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia. Mark Steyn, "Raisin' Cain," New Criterion, June 2004. Scroll down to the section about Assassins. (See also chapter 10, "The Genius," in Steyn's book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight for one of the best analyses of Sondheim ever written.) Stuart Duncan, "Theater Review: 'Assassins,'Princeton Packet Online, 28 February 2000. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030930, "First Things First: The Pursuit of Happiness." Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos, 2001). The following three articles are all excerpted on the Stephen Sondheim Society website: Frank Rich, "At Last, 9/11 Has Its Own Musical," New York Times, 2 May 2004. "Ready, Aim, Sing: Assassins Hits Broadway," New York Times, 22 April 2004. "Prison Assassins review," Times Online (U.K.), 10 March 2004.


Chuck Colson


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