Assassins For Newbies: Your Guide To The Politician‘s Big Musical

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
If you were a little confused by the trailer for Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix comedy series The Politician, with all its jump cuts, fast-paced dialogue, and cameos, join the club.
But, the one thing that stands out from the clips is the belief shared by Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) and the surrounding characters: they deserve to win and need to do anything to achieve that goal. “I win at all costs,” and “I want that trophy,” are two emphatic statements that Payton declares in the Politician teaser. To really make sure the audience understands that message, The Politician incorporates Tony-winning Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins into the plot. To save you the trouble of watching the show and not understanding the Assassins references, here is a breakdown of everything you need to know about the musical and how it relates to The Politician

What Happens In Assassins 

Yes, there is a real musical called Assassins and, it is about a group of actual assassins from American history. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods), tells the story of four successful and five attempted presidential assassins. Through the killers and their belief that they have good intentions, the dark comedy musical explores the idea of how far people will go to achieve their version of the American Dream. After an original Off-Broadway run in 1990, Assassins was revived on April 22, 2004 on Studio 54. 

The Main Songs In Assassins

Assassins certainly isn’t Sondheim’s most well-known musical, so it’s possible even a low-key theatre geek might not have heard the music from the show. The cast of the 2004 revival performed at the Tony Awards show that same year after being nominated seven times and collecting five awards, including Best Revival Of A Musical. The musical number they performed was the show’s opener, “Everybody’s Got The Right.” That song includes the lyrics “Everybody gets a shot/ Everybody’s got a right to their dreams” and “Everybody’s free to fail, no one can be put in jail for their dreams.” 
A musical about assassins certainly can’t shy away from controversy even if it wanted to, so the songs tackle divisive subjects. One piece sung in the one-act musical is titled “Gun Song,” and it is about the power a gun has to change the world when it claims a victim.
“Another National Anthem” is also a standout number from the musical’s catalogue. In the number, all the assassins list the reasons for why they commit their crimes. “There’s another national anthem, folks, for those who never win,” they belt in unison. “For the suckers, for the pikers, for those one who might have been.”
They urge people to spread the word of the new anthem because the country has turned its back on people like them. The songs really drive home the point that these assassins consider themselves outsiders which makes they think their means are necessary. 

The Characters In Assassins

Of course a musical about assassins has to have characters that represent the most infamous men and women who have attacked a president. Some of the characters in the show are John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln; Sara Jane Moore who shot at Gerald Ford; Lee Harvey Oswald who assassinated John F. Kennedy; Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who also tried to kill Ford; and Charles Guiteau who murdered James Garfield.
Two other lead characters are The Proprietor, a gun salesman who gives the other characters their weapons, and The Balladeer, the narrator who provides the background stories for each of the assassins. When the show hit Broadway in 2004, Neil Patrick Harris actually played two characters in this twisted musical during its run, The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. Assassins creates a world in which all of these characters have the chance to gather together and convince one another to carry out their assassination schemes. 

The History Of Assassins

After Assassins first debuted, The New York Times interviewed Sondheim, then-director Jerry Zaks, and librettist John Weidman about the origin of their musical.
“There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals,” Sondheim had said at the time. “We're not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.”
Sondheim noted that these assassins were influenced by both political and personal reasonings. Zaks added that history, “has tended to lump these people together and dismiss them all as just crazy.” But Zaks wanted the story to find the complicated motivations beneath the surface. “What they did caused such upheaval, such terrible pain that it seemed like they warranted a closer look.” 
According to Deadline, Assassins will be revived by the Classic Stage Company in 2020 (an eerie coincidence that just happens to pair with The Politician’s September 2019 release). Despite returning to the stage 30 years after the show was created, the ideas in Assassins remain particularly relevant now. Recent obsession with true crime (seriously, it seems like half of Netflix’s original series are true crime dramas) proves that audiences are still intrigued by the thoughts and inner workings of some of the most diabolical killers in the world.
Assassins expresses the extreme lengths people will go to when they believe they are doing what is right for their country which brings us to the state of the political world today and The Politician...

Why The Politician References Assassins

So how does a maniacal musical play a role in Murphy’s The Politician? Well, in this world of high school politics, the stakes and the mudslinging mirror current political campaigns. While embracing Payton at one point, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Georgina tells him, “Your ambition frightens me.” Later, Payton’s adversary Astrid (Ludy Boynton) is told to show her “inner coldness, unapologetically.” And assassination isn't just the theme of the high school musical — it's a real possibility in this world.
Some people in The Politician are villainous, others are corrupt, and a few are well-intentioned, but, just like the characters in Assassins, they all believe their leadership and actions will make the world (well, in this case, high school) better.
Similarly, The Politician will also show the rationale these character use to run a dirty campaign. Payton's desire to “win at all costs” isn’t so different from the message in “Everybody’s Got The Right.” Labeling their motivation as "the American Dream" can justify any means. 

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