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Assassins (Original Cast Recording)

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Album Review

Songwriter Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman's musical Assassins had a long and difficult history before it arrived on Broadway on April 22, 2004, on its way to winning five Tony Awards, making it the most celebrated show of the 2003-2004 season. The show had its first production Off-Broadway in 1991, but did not transfer to Broadway because producers felt its challenging subject matter — an examination of the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents — would not be welcomed by audiences, especially in the wake of the first Gulf War. There was, nevertheless, a cast recording, a London production (for which a new song, "Something Just Broke," was written), and, over the next decade, a series of amateur and professional productions before a Broadway staging was arranged for the fall of 2001. That was postponed in the wake of 9/11 when, again, the country's mood was deemed unsuitable. But finally, in a presidential election year, Assassins finally got to Broadway for a successful, if limited run, accompanied by another cast recording. Thirteen years later, though, it has not changed much. It still asks more questions than it answers. Sondheim's music borrows from folk music, John Philip Sousa marches, and, in the ballad "Unworthy of Your Love," sung by Reagan assailant John Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani) and Ford stalker Squeaky Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison), from '70s adult contemporary pop; his lyrics are characteristically witty. John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris) dominates the proceedings and is viewed as typical of the assassins. He speaks and sings passionately, explaining his motives for killing Lincoln, a twisted logic that the Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris) aptly sums up, "What he was was off his head." So, it seems, were the other assassins, whether they were anarchists like Leon Czolgosz (James Barbour), who killed McKinley, or adherents of Charles Manson like Fromme, though they all have their reasons. But the assassins are not simply dismissed as a bunch of dangerous nuts; they are seen as a shadow population of losers left out of the American Dream who sing "Another National Anthem" and by the end they have transformed the Balladeer into Lee Harvey Oswald and convinced him to shoot Kennedy. "Something Just Broke," added to the score near the end, actually sticks out as an attempt to soften the show's themes, as it presents ordinary people reacting to the Kennedy assassination. It gives a sense of the tragedy unleashed by the assassins, but it also diminishes their demented message and makes the listener wonder why they deserved a show at all. The ensemble cast, led by Cerveris, is outstanding on the recording, which is slightly longer than the first one, with different dialogue segments included.

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