Nine notorious individuals who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) a U.S. president proudly declare their murderous actions while brandishing guns. Would you sympathize with their triumph, or would you fear it?
This is the question that one must ask after viewing Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, which was performed this past weekend at Robsham Theater. The musical follows the lives of nine extremist (or are they?) characters, exploring their political views, intentions, and most importantly, their emotional backstories. The story doesn’t excuse their actions—rather, it shows in vivid detail how the American Dream can fail. When it does, the results are often disastrous.
“The assassins, when you look at them individually, are tremendously relatable. They're lost, isolated, confused, and beaten down,” co-director Jenna Corcoran, MCAS ‘17, commented. All let down by America in some way, the individuals took action to make a change and "thought they were doing something good for their country.”
Consider Leon Czolgosz, a poor immigrant laborer, who was played with brilliant subtlety by Lauren Strauss, MCAS ‘18. Sorrowful and reflective, Czolgosz slaves away in a bottle-making factory in horrible working conditions for six cents a day.
Sarah Jane Moore, portrayed by Gabrielle Esposito, MCAS ‘18, on the other hand, is constantly loud and morbidly hilarious. Like Czolgosz, however, she feels underrepresented in a country that too often confined women to the household. By creating fantasies of a more exciting life, she escapes from the everyday doldrums of day-to-day activity.
Both characters share just two stories that resonate with under-appreciated Americans throughout history, a sentiment so strong that that it moves people to murder.
The two narrators of the musical—the Proprietor, who was played by Anthony Underwood, MCAS ‘17, and the Balladeer, played by Jessica Shaw, MCAS ‘19—manifest as the devil and angel, respectively, on the shoulders of the assassins. In the opening musical number, "Everybody’s Got The Right," the Proprietor urges the assassins to express their anger by killing the president, handing out guns as he does.
The Balladeer, on the other hand, whose cheery candidness counters the slyness of the Proprietor, embodies the American Dream. On numerous occasions, the Balladeer takes the stage immediately after an assassin has completed his or her task, lamenting the fact that they couldn’t solve their problems with hard work and a positive outlook. Audience members are constantly tugged between conflicting messages, as both characters charismatic and convincing (they were exceptionally portrayed during this weekend's run).
The most enlightening aspect of Assassins, perhaps, is how it relates to Boston College. Jesuit core values emphasize insight, truth, and compassion, much like what Assassins urges the audience to explore in relation characters. Further, classes like Perspectives and Portico teach students to look at situations from all sides and to never judge a person without knowing their background (even if they happen to be a murder).
Ultimately, Assassins examines the collegiate conscience: “At times, we all feel isolated and personally victimized. These are the emotions that those assassins felt when they decided to act out in the ways that they did,” remarked co-director Joseph McCarthy, CSOM ‘17.
When the musical closes with the nine assassins rejoicing their ugly feats and pointing their guns at the audience, the audience is unsure how to feel, torn between morality and the law.
“But that’s the point,” said Corcoran. “As directors, we wanted to challenge the audience's moral ground. You should leave the show not knowing whose side of history you stand by.”
To repeat the question: if nine notorious, real-life people who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) a U.S. president were proudly declaring their murderous actions while brandishing their guns, would you sympathize with their triumph, or would you fear it?
McCarthy and Corcoran did a fantastic job exploring both sides of the question, and they deserve to be commended for bringing such an important musical to life at Boston College.