Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Pastiche in Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins": an economical and powerful score

The following was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of The Sondheim Review (Vol. XXII, No. 1), in an issue focused on the 25th anniversary of Assassins.

Any discussion and celebration of Assassins would be incomplete without examining Stephen Sondheim's vivid and at times ironic use of pastiche in this, his most compact theatre score. More than any of his other musicals, Sondheim's score is filled with pastiche and parody songs. These songs evoke specific time periods in this nonlinear show, helping ground each scene in its historical setting. Sondheim achieves this through direct quotation or metamorphosis of familiar melodies such as Sousa marches and "Hail to the Chief," or by crafting tunes similar to revival-tent hymns and 1970s AM radio hits. The awareness of well-known styles draws the audience in to the play's difficult subject matter, but concurrently distances the audience in part through the paradoxical usage of many of these styles.

Pastiche, imitation of previous compositions or styles, is not an unusual compositional device in musical theatre or in Sondheim's oeuvre; its use in musicals, particularly after the Rodgers & Hammerstein era, is commonly used to help portray a specific setting. Assassins is not told chronologically; in many regards, it has the feel of a revue, albeit one much darker than anything Ziegfeld would have produced. There are numerous jumps in time and place, from the mid-1800s to the 1980s, from city parks to automobile interiors to places in limbo. The assassins cross between these times and places, and from a structural standpoint, Sondheim's score brings a focus to each scene. In that regard alone, his use of preexisting material deserves accolades.

Sondheim's use of pastiche in Assassins, though, goes beyond that purpose. In Assassins, familiar songs and styles are used to situate the characters as common people. The use of popular styles give the assassins the same musical voice as the audience. The divide between us and these historical figures - actors and audience, criminals and law-abiders - disappears because there is no separation in our music. They are singing songs that we know and sing. Through song, they are us, and we them.

Compact in book and music but not in setting or raw emotion, there are ten major songs and eleven major characters. Three of these songs are written in Sondheim's unique voice ("Opening/Everybody's Got the Right," "Another National Anthem," and "Something Just Broke"). It's appropriate that the ensemble songs do not parrot other styles. Weidman's book scenes are often set in limbo; the first scene is set in a "turn of the century saloon. It could be on 14th Street in 1900 or on Columbus Avenue in 1991.” It is a place where all of the assassins can congregate and place themselves amidst a larger narrative. Much like the book songs in Follies, these songs allow the characters to sing in their own voice and speak of their individual and collective motivations. These songs are mature Sondheim at his peak.

The remaining pastiche songs are just as superb and deserving of a brief examination. Several of the songs in Assassins are ballads, folk songs of the narrative type, sung by the Balladeer. This everyman narrator is an outsider to the stories at hand, telling through song the story of the three successful presidential assassins (Lee Harvey Oswald does not get any songs, save for one short line in the musical's finale). The first ballad is immediately after the opening. "The Ballad of Booth" is written in the style an Appalachian folk song that could have been performed by Woody Guthrie. John Wilkes Booth's story, presented here as the forefather of the assassins, is familiar because of its import in history, and because of our familiarity with this type of song.

"The Ballad of Guiteau" is a schizophrenic number that alternates between Charles Guiteau and the Balladeer. The song has three distinct styles, each appropriate to the time of Guiteau's assassination of President Garfield in 1881. The opening of the song is an a cappella hymn, the lyrics of which were written by Guiteau himself while he was awaiting execution. Sondheim sets these words to a melody evocative of a revival-tent hymn. Guiteau, at one point in his manic life, was an evangelical preacher; he requested an orchestra play during his execution while he sang the poem itself. It is only logical that Guiteau be portrayed walking up the scaffolding singing the song that he wrote. This attention to detail permeates Sondheim's music throughout Assassins.

The Balladeer appears after Guiteau's death-gallows poem, telling Guiteau's tale, a "sinner who winds up a winner," in the style of a late-nineteenth century parlor song. This story is interrupted by an increasingly insane Guiteau who now has moved beyond his repentance to a celebration of going home to the "land of opportunity," cakewalking up the steps of the gallows. Three sections seamlessly combine three preexisting styles of popular music. This melding of styles mirrors Guiteau's crumbling mental state.

The third ballad is "The Ballad of Czolgosz." Unlike the other two, the song’s namesake does not get a voice here. It’s also the only ballad that happens in real time, depicting the assassination as it happens. The song is the descendent of a western hoedown vis a vis Aaron Copland's Rodeo. (Stephen Banfield, in Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals, and Stephen Swayne, in his dissertation Hearing Sondheim’s Voices, draw this connection.)

All three ballads are based on folk idioms; the remainder of the songs are not, but still have roots in popular styles. "How I Saved Roosevelt" is performed by crowd members clamoring for their fifteen minutes of fame as they tell the media how they prevented Franklin Delano Roosevelt's assassination. This scene opens with the pit orchestra playing a famous John Philip Sousa march, El Capitan. The crowd, at Bayfront Park in Miami, takes up the melody from the band and sings a contrafact to the march. The 6/8 two-step later blurs with another Sousa march, the Washington Post, with tarantellic interjections as the Italian immigrant Zangara sings about why he tried to kill FDR.

"How I Saved Roosevelt" is the most direct musical reference in the score. Sondheim constructs this song around the melodic and harmonic structure of El Capitan, and quotes directly from it and the Washington Post. Realistically, it is easy to picture the crowd singing along with these pieces: the band performing that day likely had several Sousa marches in their repertoire, and Sousa's works were well-known through their RCA Victor recordings and numerous concert tours.

The two assassination attempts that occurred closest to the writing of Assassins fittingly have the most contemporary pop song in the score. "Unworthy Of Your Love" is such a perfect parody of a 1970s love song that it could be easily confused as a B-side penned by Burt Bacharach. "Unworthy Of Your Love" is a duet between John Hinckley, attempted assassin of President Reagan, and Squeaky Fromme, attempted assassin of President Ford.

 The 2004 Broadway revival cast of  Assassin  s . (via Playbill.com)

The 2004 Broadway revival cast of Assassins. (via Playbill.com)

They are separated by place (Hinckley in Washington, D.C., Fromme in California) and time. Their song of devotion is one sung to the objects of their affection: Hinckley is crooning, complete with "mistakes" in his guitar playing, to Jodie Foster. Fromme is idolizing Charles Manson. This love ballad shows the extreme side of celebrity worship, one we recognize as ludicrous and absurd, but somewhat understandable. Celebrity worship is not anything new, and the song warns us of the potential problems of such celebrity cult. It distances the audience from the assassins by reminding us that we would never attempt such an outrageous act as they did.

Yet we can also sympathize with the singers, because we know puppy love and more. The hesitant nature and humility of the opening line ("I am...nothing...you are...wind and water and sky") point to countless pop lyrics. Were this a live concert, the audience would be singing along during the chorus.

A few other notable moments cannot be overlooked here. “Gun Song” has two barbershop quartet sections. Raymond Knapp, in The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, connects the use of barbershop to The Music Man as well as earlier traditions. Barbershop quartets evoke a nostalgic tradition of love songs from the Tin Pan Alley and earlier. Here the ragtag group sings about how easy it is to “change the world” simply by using “your little finger” to shoot a gun.

Throughout the show, including the opening cue, Sondheim utilizes “Hail to the Chief.” It has morphed from its traditional march beat into 3/4 time, a carnival waltz. This sets up the opening scene, and the motif of the common tune that is just a bit off-kilter (like the show’s protagonists) recurs throughout the piece. “Everybody’s Got the Right” is a smooth soft-shoe, that tricky kind of Sondheim song that lulls you in before you realize its more sinister elements.

Sondheim's almost complete use of pastiche, parody, and quotation makes Assassins unique among his theatre pieces. Familiarity with the musical styles allows for an easier approach to the troubling subject matter, creates concrete settings, and connects the audience with the assassins (much as the assassins themselves cry out to connect in the opening number). Using this device allowed Sondheim to write his most economical score and one of his most powerful works for the stage, one that still calls for further exploration and a deeper appreciation twenty-five years after its first appearance.

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