Monday, April 21, 2014

Sondheim’s Assassins: Songs for Villains

The singing villain

We all know that in musicals, villains can sing a song. Just look at this Buzzfeed listicle of the 12 Greatest Disney Villain Songs (1). The villains' song (they usually only get one) function as a window to their characters, a behind-the-curtain look into their psyche, and maybe a glimpse into their plans (2). These songs are also often scary and ominous (and in a minor key).

Another example of a villain's song is the stage version of Singin' in the Rain"What's Wrong with Me?", sung by Lina Lamont, the conniving silent film star with an unfortunate accent (3). But the song doesn't really work in the context of the play's action, because this particular song, a look into her soft interior thoughts, makes the audience relate to Lena. And Lena's role is the villain of the melodrama, the person we're supposed to hate.

If everyone is evil, then no one is evil

But what happens when all the characters are villains? Last week I saw Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. Almost all of the characters in Assassins are people who killed or tried to kill various Presidents of the United States (4). Why did Sondheim (and his librettist, John Weidman) turn this bizarre/violent collection of stories into a musical, a genre usually reserved for love stories and comedies? I think Sondheim and Weidman are taking these characters, all villains, and trying to make the audience relate to them, to understand them. And making the characters sing helps us step into their skin (5). As we saw with Lena Lamont, a song is a great tool to portray a character's innermost thoughts.

One of my favorite songs in Assassins is "The Gun Song," which features a lively barbershop quartet sandwiched in between some minor-mode inner thoughts. What happens when we hear a barbershop quartet about gun violence? Well, we start to feel a dramatic tension between the happy music and the horrible things the characters are singing about. And I think we also start paying more attention to the arguments the singers are making. And this uncomfortable/sympathetic feeling is exactly what I think Assassins is all about.

(warning: some strong language)

Vocab: minor, mode

(1) Though not all of these are sung by the villains.
(2) Songs in musicals and operas often are about a characters inner feelings, and hardly ever about plot.
(3) If you're wondering why you've never heard this song, it is not in the original movie.
(4) It’s actually hard to talk about the music in Assassins, because this play has so many other interesting things worth talking about. But, one cool factoid about the music is that each assassin's song is inspired by the style of popular music at the time they were living.
(5) The same thing happens in Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog.


  1. Another good illustration of what functions songs play in musicals is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Musical Episode, "Once More, with Feeling." The set-up is that all of the characters have pent-up feelings they aren't sharing, and when they are forced to sing, those feelings come out—because that's what songs do in musicals, express the singer's feelings.

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