Illustrated Synopsis and Musical Numbers
An eerie carnival calliope announces the arrival of several would-be Presidential assassins at a fairground shooting gallery, which boasts a unique entertainment: “Shoot the President – win a Prize!”. As the Proprietor ballyhoos his sideshow, eight figures come forward one by one to chance their luck, assassins drawn from over a century of American history. They are a disparate group, one dressed in a 19th century frock coat, another as a department store Santa. But each is handed his own distinctive gun – the preferred means of ultimate political protest in the United States. “EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT to be happy”, the Proprietor asserts. “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams: isn’t that the American way?”
The last to arrive is John Wilkes Booth, who promptly uses his newly-acquired weapon on President Lincoln. As the fatal shots ring out, the Balladeer steps out to sing THE BALLAD OF BOOTH – a handsome devil who decided to take his bad reviews out on his Chief of State. Holed up in a tobacco barn with his confederate David Herold, Booth is determined to set down his version of events: he’s not a common cut-throat, not a madman, but someone who did what he did for his country, who slew a tyrant – as Brutus did. But, even as Booth dies, the Balladeer’s banjo ballad returns to point out that, thanks to him, Lincoln, who’d hitherto received mixed reviews, now gets only raves.
The other assassins are in a bar. “Has Nixon been in?” asks Samuel Byck, still wearing his Santa suit. But it seems not. Booth is back, though, just in time to hear Giuseppe Zangara complaining about how nothing seems to relieve the pain in his stomach. Booth suggests shooting FDR. “Will it help?” asks Zangara. But Zangara’s attempt misfires and he kills, instead, Mayor Cermak of Chicago. Grouped around the radio microphones in Miami’s Bayfront Park, a handful of bystanders boast, over the strains of a Sousa march, “HOW I SAVED ROOSEVELT”, while, strapped into the electric chair, Zangara insists he is not left or right, only an “American nothing”. The song ends as the current is switched on.
Forty years later, in the mid-Seventies, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme meet up over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, discuss the evils of fast food and end up taking pot shots at the graven image of Colonel Sanders. Neither is very good with a gun, but at least they have one. “It takes a lot of men to make a gun,” says Leon Czolgosz, a lumbering glass-factory worker contemplating the significance and power of his weapon. In THE GUN SONG, Czolgosz, Moore, Booth and Charles Guiteau identify, in barbershop harmonies, the advantages of firearms: all you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world. The others wander off, leaving Czolgosz alone to consider what he should do. He is an admirer of the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman and, after one of her meetings, she suggested that he might like to visit the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. He does, and the Balladeer takes up the story in THE BALLAD OF CZOLGOSZ. As President McKinley shakes hands with visitors to the Exposition, Czolgosz wraps his gun in a handkerchief, joins the President’s excited admirers and kills Big Bill. In the USA, you can work your way to the head of the line”.
Back to the Seventies: Samuel Byck, an out-of-work tyre salesman, has hatched a bold scheme to kill President Nixon and is explaining it, via his cassette machine, to Leonard Bernstein, the busy conductor and composer. “Maybe if you can’t listen now,” suggests Byck, aware of the pressures on the maestro’s time, “you can listen ‘Tonight, tonight ….’ I love that song”. His message completed, he leaves singing “Everything’s great in America….” John Hinckley also enjoys singing, but only his own compositions, angrily accompanied on his acoustic guitar. “I am UNWORTHY OF YOUR LOVE”, he admits in an overwrought ballad addressed to his “girlfriend”, Jodie Foster. Lynette Fromme watches and then delivers her own version of the number, addressed to her lover – and the new Messiah – Charles Manson. But Hinckley blows his opportunity to prove his worthiness to Jodie when he starts shooting unsuccessfully at a photo of President Reagan that is projected on to the back wall. The President just keeps wisecracking his way through the bullets – and, hey, where’d that guy learn to shoot anyway? The Russian army? Charles Guiteau has better luck. In 1881, he meets President Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac station in Washington and asks to be made Ambassador to France. Garfield ignores him and is fatally shot in the back. Failed lawyer, preacher, politician and author, Garfield’s killer is looking forward to being an angel and, in THE BALLAD OF GUITEAU, cakewalks up and down the gallows steps with irrepressible cheerfulness.
Before his assassination of Garfield and execution, Guiteau had given Sara Jane Moore some lessons in how to shoot up her Kentucky Fried Chicken more accurately. But they don’t seem to have paid off. Trying now to shoot President Ford, she kills her dog instead. And she got all her dates mixed up, so she had to bring the kid along and he’s screaming for an ice-cream and Lynette is screaming at her for bringing the kid and the dog to an assassination. “Look, we came here to kill the President”, shrieks Moore. “Let’s just kill him and go home”. Enter President Ford, who trips on the bullets she’s dropped, very considerately hands them back to her and proceeds on his way as Moore and Fromme pull their triggers helplessly behind him.
After Sam Byck’s abortive mission to crash an airliner into the White House, he and the seven other assassins come together to explain their motives: one did it to avenge the ravaged South, another so her friends would know where she was coming from. Now, they want their prizes. For the first time, they are no longer freakish, embittered, angry individuals but a group with a common purpose, marching to ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM – not the one you cheer at the ballpark, but the anthem of those who can’t get in. As the march dies away, the Blue Ridge Boys play Heartache Serenade, and we’re listening to a transistor radio in the sixth floor storeroom of the Texas School Book Depository on 22 NOVEMBER 1963. On the verge of taking his own life, Lee Harvey Oswald is interrupted by Booth and the other assassins, and invited instead to make history. The assassins who preceded Oswald say he will bring them back; those who came after him say he will make them possible, by once again making assassinations a part of the American experience. His act can give them historical power as a united force, not as a bunch of isolated “nuts”. Oswald refuses and Booth entices him with the statement that when Hinckley’s room is searched after his assassination attempt on President Reagan, every book written about Oswald will be found. Through the window, flags are flying, bands are marching to patriotic tunes, the President’s motorcade is about to pass by the cheering crowds. 1n here, this is America, too”, says Booth – the land where any kid can grow up to be President, or grow up to kill a President. Oswald picks up his gun and moves to the window. As President Kennedy dies, his assassin takes his place among his confreres in the last empty booth at the carnival. He has brought them back, he has made them possible, and, for those ordinary Americans, who’ll always remember where they were when they heard the news, SOMETHING JUST BROKE. Their despair stands in quiet contrast to the jaunty reprise of their theme, EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT to their dreams. And, as in all the happy endings in all the best musicals, your dream can come true if you just go out and get it.