Sondheim Week, Day Five: “Everybody’s Got The Right”


Album Art

You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right

Original Broadway Cast

Assassins

Genre: Broadway

What I went through on Friday afternoon doesn’t qualify as “publishing another new blog post about a Sondheim song” but it did become a perfect illustration of why Stephen Sondheim is a rather special kind of Broadway composer.

I knew I was going to choose something from “Assassins.” I’d narrowed it down to two or three candidates and I suspected there might have been another solid choice lurking in the soundtrack.

So I listened to the whole thing, all the way through.

…While reading along with the lyrics and notes in “Look, I Made A Hat” to make sure I didn’t miss a single detail or piece of context.

…And after that, I was just too bummed out.

By a Broadway musical!

This is an unexpected result from a musical.

It’s not an entirely unexpected one from a Sondheim musical.

Actually, maybe it’s an easily-predictable reaction to a Sondheim musical that’s about people who’ve attempted to assassinate the President throughout American history.

Interesting Point One is the fact that a musical can leave me in a somber mood. Interesting Point Two: when I hear the phrase “A Broadway musical about Presidential assassins. Yes, John Wilkes Booth sings” I prepare to dismiss this as either complete idiocy, pretentious claptrap, or a lazy exercise in attention-grabbing bad taste…until I hear “…composed by Stephen Sondheim.” At which point I think “Oh. All right, then. Carry on.”

It’s not that I’m certain it’s going to be good. But I do know it won’t be lazy, and it won’t be anything less than “interesting.”

“Assassins” is both good and interesting. The show’s book (by John Weidman) presents us with nine men and women who tried to kill the President. Some successfully, some unsuccessfully; some famously, and some whose exploits have been completely forgotten by everyone except for the Secret Service and Presidential historians.

Samuel Byck (Nixon’s would-be assassin) was neither successful nor remembered. Doesn’t it seem incredible that one can die in an attempt to kill the President and yet be utterly, utterly unknown? I’d at least heard of Squeaky Fromme (who failed to kill Gerald Ford). But only because Laraine Newman played her in an SNL sketch (as a guest on a talk show entitled “Dangerous But Inept”).

Curiosity got the better to me and I read all about Byck on Friday night. I won’t tell you what Byck or Fromme got up to. Because something seemed clear to me after a moment’s thought: obscurity is among the worst punishments that Society can deliver to an assassin or a terrorist, isn’t it? If part of the killer’s motive is to prove that they matter, and to make the world pay attention to them, how can he or she fail any harder than “You didn’t achieve your objective and just a few years later, nobody knew or cared you ever existed”?

Go ahead and Google for Byck if you’re curious. I won’t judge you for that, but I also won’t help.

This clicks into a lifestyle decision that I made early this year. From now on, I’m going to try very, very hard to never learn about mass-murderers. I should know about these horrible events that become part of the national conversation, yes. But I don’t need to see their faces. I don’t need to recognize their names. I don’t need to know about their histories, see quotes taken from their last letters or social media activity, or hear about what they hoped to achieve by methodically killing innocent people.

I feel as though that information makes me into an unwilling accomplice. To what, I don’t know, but I do know it’s nothing good. Did the killer hope to transform themselves from insignificance to notoriety? Plant their flag in the national consciousness? Demonstrate that they have the ability to influence people and events? If any of these things are true, then the fact that a paunchy tech reporter in New England knows who they are becomes a Win for them.

I also worry that the saturation-coverage of these incidents is acting as an enzyme for other sick people. I worry that every time I click one of these links or tune in to one of these stories, I’m encouraging news outlets to stick with the story…and that we’re all encouraging the next horrible incident.

I don’t believe that coverage of a mass-shooting goads other potential shooters towards a terrible action. But I’m certain that exposure to this sort of news can have a desensitizing effect upon a mind that’s already sick.

Here’s what I mean. Should you ever reach out and dip your hands into molten metal?

Got your answer? All right. Now, watch this video of the Mythbusters dipping their hands into molten lead:

You’ve now seen somebody do precisely that. It seemed to work out just great for them. Look, they’re laughing and talking as if it were a highly-positive experience.

Has this influenced your thoughts about dipping your hands into molten metal?

The effect is subtle and it goes beyond “Jamie and Adam have explained a scientific principle and outlined specific conditions under which a positive outcome was possible.” That wasn’t the most powerful part of it. You saw another human being do something that you might have previously dismissed as insane.

You can extend this to the idea of jumping off of a low bridge while clutching a balled-up parachute in your right hand. It’s a bad idea. You definitely should not do that. If such a stupid and clearly self-destructive idea popped into your head, you might wonder “where the hell did that come from?” and worry about your mental health. It’s a crazy thought. You should dismiss it immediately.

But: when you learn that somebody else had that exact same idea, it somehow seems more normal. Not only are you not the only person who thinks that way, but hey, here, look: somebody did that.

(Aside: and now, BASE jumping is edging into the mainstream. But the early point still stands. Lots of people had to die stupidly before safety procedures — or more appropriately: “safety” procedures — were identified, developed, and improved.)

It’s still neither right nor normal. But to the wrong kind of mind, crazy things can suddenly seem more right and more normal once that person has seen it happen once already. To an unwell person who’s watching yet another news story about yet another horrible, unthinkable, and despicable tragedy, shooting up a public place isn’t an unprecedented act of desperate violence. It’s possible for such a mind to think of it as just “something that happens all the time, that other people also think about doing.”

And for “Jamie and Adam didn’t burn their hands” or “that guy parachuted safely at the bottom of the gorge and acted like it was the greatest thing he’d ever done,” substitute “that guy completely took over the national news for three solid days and everybody knew who he was.”

So that’s why I don’t know the name or the face of that guy who killed a TSA agent in LA last week, or any other mass-killer since the Boston Marathon bombings. I can’t prevent the news from covering these stories. I can only limit my own contribution to the problem, which is all that I can ask of myself.

“Assassins” can affect its audience deeply because it humanizes the killers and literally gives them a stage all to themselves to air their points of view and their frustrations. Despite what I’ve said about not wanting to know about killers’ backgrounds, I don’t believe that seeing these people as real human beings is a bad thing. It’s kind of our responsibility, actually. The inability to empathize and perceive people as human beings is the trait that makes these terrible crimes even possible.

Plus, denying the humanity of the killer is way too easy on the rest of us. It’s horrifying to recognize that the lifeforms who managed to hold two airplanes on a cold course towards the World Trade Center all the way to the points of impact were, in fact, the exact same type of organism as you or I. But it’s true.

And troubling. It’s scary to encounter a type of human behavior that we can’t understand in even the most remote academic sense. We try very, very hard to unravel a John Wilkes Booth or a Lee Harvey Oswald and understand why they did what they did.

If the shooting was the result of hopelessness, was there a way that we, as a Society, could have restored hope, and prevented this tragedy?

If the shooting was the result of a mental illness, were we, as a Society, derelict in our duty to protect each other? Were we complicit, in the way we maintain stigmas against the treatment of mental disorders? Did we collectively fail to serve these people? By identifying and treating this illness sooner, could we have saved the lives of both the victim and the assassin…two lives equally precious in the eyes of God or Nature?

Or: is it hopelessly naive to even pursue these questions in the first place?

The Humans are creatures of free will and America is a country that was largely founded on freedom. As such, a population of 300,000,000 people is statistically likely to contain thousands of people who are simply inclined towards committing horrifying acts on a national scale. We can, and should, try to understand these problems. We should also recognize that thinking and talking and collecting data is sometimes nothing more than a self-soothing behavior. We tell ourselves “This dragon is no longer any danger to us…for I have learned that its name is ‘Reggie’.”

We live in a world in which evil is quite possible. Sometimes, data is the cloth we drop over that statement so that we don’t have to look at it.

I’ve never seen “Assassins” onstage. I’ve only experienced it through the soundtrack. With the exception of a narrator (in the form of a balladeer), all of the characters are the assassins themselves, and they speak of their own experiences in the first person. They express their insane thoughts, the bulls*** that they use on themselves and on others, their self-pity, and sometimes they even express clear and rational (if disagreeable) lines of thought that don’t go off the rails until they end with “…and, so, I decided to take somebody’s life.”

It’s a wide range of people and motives. You’re likely to recognize one or two of these generic thoughts, these fears, this kind of anger, as something similar to what you’ve heard a friend or co-worker say. Which is why listening to this soundtrack can be a harrowing experience.

For some reason, an example from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” comes to my mind right now. It’s the semi-famous illustration of a series of faces in which there’s a simple four-line “happy face” at the far left, and a photorealistic drawing on the far right, with progressively more detailed faces in between. McCloud uses it to illustrate how the brain can form a subconscious emotional connection to a comic book character. The face that’s halfway between “happy face” and “photo,” is low on specific details. But looks just enough like your son that your brain fills in the blanks. You’re not even terribly aware of the similarity. And yet somehow, you care more about that character as a result.

The assassins in this musical can have the same effect. Perhaps you recognize the lament of baseless anger and blind entitlement as the sort of thing that a former classmate engages in on his Facebook page. Or maybe the generic dissatisfaction with the direction of the country reminds you of conversations around the family dinner table when you were a kid. You’re not thinking about Connie or Jeff or Kevin, but the subconscious familiarity causes you to feel an additional investment in some of these characters. That connection creates a building sense of anxiety at the knowledge of what they’re about to do.

Like I said at the very top: listening to this jaunty Broadway musical all the way through is a heavy, heavy experience. Oh, no, I wasn’t driven to the whiskey bottle by this soundtrack. Nonetheless, I did feel a need to leave the coffeeshop and watch a lot of “Parks And Recreation” on Netflix when I got home.

Did I describe this musical as “Jaunty”? Yup. Sondheim often keeps us off-balance in “Assassins” by writing a quite lovely and conventional Broadway musical tune that’s only off-putting because of its context.

Take, for example, this classical love song:

I am nothing,
You are wind and water and sky.
Jodie.
Tell me, Jodie, how I
Can earn your love.

I would swim oceans.
I would move mountains.
I would do anything for you.
What would you want me to do?

It wouldn’t be at all out of place in 1940s movie musical. Which suddenly makes me realize, retroactively, that the singers in most of the love songs of the past seventy years was expressing the thoughts of a dangerous psychopath.

Thanks, Sondheim, for ruining a great Cole Porter song:

I’d love to gain complete control of you
And handle even the heart and soul of you
So love at least a small percent of me do
For I love all of you

Another “Assassins” tune is a “cheer up and don’t lose hope” ditty…which also wouldn’t feel out of place in a Depression-era MGM picture:

Everybody’s got the right
To be happy.
Don’t stay mad,
Life’s not as bad
As it seems.
If you keep your goal in sight,
You can climb to any height.
Everybody’s got the right
To their dreams…

One of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of digital music distribution is that it allows a song to become discoverable outside of its original context. I like to imagine some newly-engaged young woman cutting together an iMovie of all of the precious photos and video clips of her and her fiancee, to publicly celebrate their timeless love story. And then she lays in a sweet love song she found online because “It’s just SO TOTALLY me and Ethan.” She won’t know it’s actually a song about an insane man’s murderous obsession with a woman he’d never met until the YouTube comments start arriving.

The only way to top that would be a businessman running for Congress on a platform of smaller government and the American Dream, who approves a campaign song that’s also the anthem of a bunch of men and women who tried, and succeeded, in murdering the President.

So after two days of rewriting and revisiting my original question (“But which track from the ‘Assassins’ soundtrack?”) I’ve settled on “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange.” It ends with a reprise of the number that kicked off the show: “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

The reprise is kind of amazing. There’s a major disorientation between what the song is and what it means. The combination of fantasy and entitlement is a heady brew and it’s dangerous when applied to a sick mind.

The fact that this is Sondheim Week prevented me from selecting the most powerful cut on the soundtrack: “November 22, 1963.” It’s not music. It’s the ten-minute-long dramatic scene that acts as the climax of the whole musical. John Wilkes Booth visits Lee Harvey Oswald on the morning of November 22 before he leaves for work.

Unlike the other characters, Oswald is making his first appearance in the show and he never gets to address the audience or sing. He’s clearly a mess and at this point in his breakdown, his self-consuming frustrations could find practically any kind of outlet. Booth walks him through the situation and is soon joined by the other assassins, forming a chorus that preys upon Oswald’s broken mind for their own ends.

This is probably the bit that sent me home to watch “Parks And Rec” instead of focusing on this blog post. (Also, the coffeeshop was closing in an hour and they were out of scones).

There was definitely a point at which Oswald was of a sound enough mind to choose not to kill JFK and send the nation into an extended period of mourning. What could have someone have said to him to sway him towards a path in which both Oswald and JFK got to enjoy their grandchildren?

There will always be that fantasy of identifying a moment before the first rock tumbled from the cliff and the landslide became inevitable. And “fantasy” might be the right word. Oswald, Mark David Chapman, the 9/11 terrorists…they didn’t just suddenly snap. Their lives up to that point had undergone a long process of steady abrasion which left them in a frame of mind that allowed them to do the unthinkable.

But assassination and terrorism are acts against an entire society. Even if your life isn’t directly affected by the killings of people you’d never met, it’s a form of injury to any man or woman with the basic gift and burden of empathy for strangers.

Getting in a car accident in which nobody was injured is an improvement over spending three days in a hospital and then seven months rehabbing your shattered arm. But given the choice, most people would prefer to have never had suffered such a shocking incident to begin with. And that’s why, when we find ourselves listening to a highly-agitated Oswald wondering what to do next, we keep hoping someone will tell him “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lee…you don’t have to do this!” And if it doesn’t happen soon, then this shout just might come from the audience.

As I say: “Assassins” is a hell of a musical.

Geez. I promise that next time I’ll write about something cheery, like a man and woman who murder and butcher people for the meat, which they then sell as pies to an unwitting public. You know, something danceable!

Preview “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon.com soon after clicking this link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of store credits. Which I will likely spend on more albums that will bum me out. Also: bathtub toys. It’ll even out, I promise.