Every lover of the arts has come upon brilliant work which is nonetheless morally repugnant. There’s racism in Shakespeare’s Othello and anti-Semitism in his Merchant of Venice; there are shockingly ugly depictions of women in Baudelaire’s technically superb Les Fleurs du Mal, and there is thrilling cinematic art in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — filmed in the interest of glorifying Adolf Hitler.
In each of these cases, one has to perform mental contortions in order to keep one’s aesthetics and one’s ethics safely separate. But the effort is fatiguing, and the temptation is always there to brand the whole artwork with the tendency of one half. If it works as art, who dares call it evil? If its morals are suspect, who dares call it art?
That’s the quandary I’m in regarding Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, currently offered in a nearly-ideal production at freeFall Theatre. This mind-boggling musical is devoted to the assassins who succeeded or failed at murdering Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Roosevelt (Franklin), Kennedy, Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Sondheim and book-writer John Weidman’s approach is to present — or is it celebrate? — the various motives that led to each assassin’s attack, and then to move on to the next killer with minimum comment on the assault’s moral status. Do Sondheim’s spectacularly successful music and lyrics remind us that the mayhem illustrated here is beyond contempt? Not really. Does he at least remind us that these assassins were losers and lunatics to be despised? Not in each case, no. Squeaky Fromme is depicted as a wigged-out hippie who thinks that Charles Manson is the Messiah, but John Wilkes Booth is presented as a dignified gentleman who honestly believes that he’s Brutus to Lincoln’s Caesar. Charles Guiteau, Garfield's murderer, is shown as a self-deluded nitwit, but Leon Czolgosz, McKinley's killer, is drawn as a deeply-feeling champion of America’s oppressed working class. There’s even a concluding section where a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald is persuaded that he’d be better directed offing JFK. And when his interlocutors reason that he’ll make a name for himself in history, well, who can deny it? And now he’s even got his own musical!
So let me reiterate: This is one of those works — as in Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Riefenstahl — that’s both admirably artistic and morally offensive, and if you can dissolve that into one judgment, you’re a better thinker than I. So let’s look on the bright side: the freeFall cast is universally terrific, with splendid performances by Alan Mohney Jr. as Guiteau, Susan Haldeman as Sara Jane Moore, Robert Teasdale as Czolgosz and the phosphorescent Lucas Wells as a sort of emcee and as Oswald. But this large cast has no weak link: Britt Michael Gordon as Booth is also superb, and Marissa Toogood as Fromme, John Mark Jernigan as John Hinckley and Thomas Mothershed as Samuel Byck (who was aiming for Nixon) are also topnotch. All singing voices are the most professional quality, and Sondheim’s melodies are among the best in his entire repertoire. There’s even humor — as when four starstruck bystanders relate “How I Saved Roosevelt” — and there’s a kind of recognition that murder kills more than just a politician in the poignant “Something Just Broke.” But the song that opens and closes the show — “Everybody’s Got the Right” — exists in a moral gray zone that’s not exactly excusing political murder, but not particularly criticizing it either. And several of the other tunes are too morally neutral to be entirely pleasing.
As for Weidman’s book, it’s more interested in sketching each assassin as an individual with compulsions of his/her own than in condemning the outrages perpetrated upon the nation. The whole pageant, impeccably directed by Chris Crawford, takes place on Eric Davis’s simple set, consisting of a moveable staircase leading up to a balcony, a couple of wooden boxes, and portraits of presidents that light up when relevant. There’s also a large red-and-white striped picnic table at which some audience members sit and on which some actors stand. David Covach’s period costumes could hardly be better.
But in this perilous, too-violent world, is a play like Assassins defensible? Aesthetically: yes. Morally: no. I love Shakespeare, but The Merchant of Venice pains me each time I see it, particularly because its anti-Semitism is couched in the most magnificently wrought English. And I feel the same thing about this play: It’s too good and too bad. It’s commendable and regrettable. I’d like to believe it’s not dangerous, but I know that it is. I hope the wrong people don’t see it.
Call it a paradox. And one, I think, that can’t be resolved.