Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis

The show opens to a half dozen American bystanders waving cheerfully at a passing parade, or motorcade. The scene quickly shifts to the shooting gallery at a fairground. There is something sinister about this place - both in the targets and the prizes hanging on the wall. The Proprietor stands behind the counter.

Leon Czolgosz, a scruffy, sullen laborer in his late twenties, shuffles in sadly. The Proprietor advises Czolgosz he can chase his blues away by killing a President, pointing out that assassination is a skill at which even rank beginners can excel. As Czolgosz picks up a gun, John Hinckley, a plump 21-year-old, ambles aimlessly in. The Proprietor convinces him he can improve his love life and impress his dream girl by shooting a President. They are joined by Charles Guiteau, who enters furtively, dressed in black. His shoes are polished, but he wears no socks. The Proprietor says he can overcome failure by killing a President, and he steps up to the shooting gallery. He is soon joined by Giuseppe Zangara, a tiny, angry man, who groans and rubs his stomach. The Proprietor promises shooting a President will relieve his pain. The next arrival is Samuel Byck in a dirty Santa suit. As the Proprietor encourages him to pick up a gun, Lynette Fromme, a small, intense girl wearing red religious robes, and Sara Jane Moore, a bright-eyed, heavy-set, middle-aged woman, enter. The Proprietor signs them up after Moore has a great deal of difficulty finding the proper change in her purse. John Wilkes Booth appears. The Proprietor introduces him as the group's pioneer and distributes ammunition ("Everybody's Got The Right").

As the assassins take aim, Lincoln's arrival is announced offstage. Booth excuses himself and a shot rings out.

A Balladeer enters to tell the story of John Wilkes Booth. We see Booth and accomplice David Herold hiding in a tobacco barn in rural Virginia. Booth knows he is about to be captured and is trying to write his justification for his actions in his diary. His statements that his actions were politically motivated are juxtaposed with the Balladeer's comments that Booth's motives actually have to do with his own personal problems. As Booth is shot by a Union soldier, he throws the Balladeer his diary, begging him to tell his story to the world. The Balladeer recites Booth's version of events as Booth shoots himself. As Booth dies, the Balladeer concludes that Booth was a madman who left behind a legacy of butchery and treason. He points out that, ironically, in trying to destroy Lincoln, Booth actually elevated him to legendary status ("The Ballad Of Booth").

Back in the limbo of the fairground, the assassins are gathered in what could be a bar or a saloon. Through the course of their conversations, their various troubles and motivations begin to be revealed. Hinckley accidentally breaks a Coke bottle, which enrages Czolgosz - who it turns out has suffered greatly working in a bottle factory. Zangara complains about his stomach, and Booth encourages him to do something about it - like shooting President Roosevelt.

In the next moment, a radio reports that Zangara has attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt. We go to the rally, where members of the crowd speak into microphones telling the radio audience their distorted impressions of the event they have witnessed; everyone is convinced that he or she personally saved the President's life with some seemingly inconsequential action. Zangara is strapped into the electric chair. It's clear he shot Roosevelt so that he would be noticed, but even in his final moments the crowd ignores his explanations while the bystanders focus on how they look to the press ("How I Saved Roosevelt").

At an Anarchist rally in Chicago, Emma Goldman speaks offstage as Leon Czolgosz listens, enraptured. He introduces himself to her after the speech and declares he is in love with her. She encourages him to redirect his passion to the fight for social justice.

In a public park, Squeaky Fromme meets Sara Jane Moore. Fromme smokes a joint and speaks of her obsession with Charles Manson, the mass murderer. She declares herself his lover and slave. Juggling her purse, a Tab, and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Moore says she is a narc for the FBI or used to be; has been a CPA; had five husbands and three kids; and suffers from amnesia. Fromme insists Manson is going to emerge as king of a new order and make her his queen. Moore is sure she knew Manson when he was much younger. The scene ends as they both give the portrait of Colonel Sanders on Moore's bucket of chicken the evil eye, then blast it to pieces with their guns. 

Lights up on Czolgosz examing an empty pistol, while the Proprieter watches from the shadows. Czolgosz reflects on the amount of energy and manpower that goes into making a gun; the other assassins join him in commenting on the ability of such a small object to change the world ("Gun Song").

The scene morphs into the the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, where Czolgosz watches President McKinley shake visitors' hands in the Temple of Music Pavilion. The Balladeer traces Czolgosz as he works his way down the receiving line of fairgoers who see only the positive elements of McKinley's image. When Czolgosz finally reaches the head of the line, he shoots McKinley ("The Ballad Of Czolgosz"). 

Back in limbo, Samuel Byck enters in his soiled Santa suit and sits on a park bench with a picket sign and shopping bag. He drinks a Yoo-Hoo and talks into his tape recorder. He is sending a message to the composer Leonard Bernstein, begging him to save the world by writing more love songs. By the end, he accuses Bernstein of ignoring him just like the other celebrities with whom he has tried to communicate. 

Squeaky Fromme finds John Hinckley playing the guitar and she mocks him for his pathetic love of Jodie Foster, who he doesn't even know. Hinckley orders Fromme to leave. After she goes, he apologizes to Jodie for his weakness, explaining that he hopes to prove his worth to her. Simultaneously, in limbo, Fromme puts forth her similar feelings about Manson ("Unworthy Of Your Love"). Hinckley starts shooting at a photo of President Ronald Reagan that is projected on the back wall. The picture keeps reappearing as the Proprietor mocks Hinckley's inability to kill the President. 

Moore clumsily takes target practice, when Guiteau enters and gives her tips on shooting; he tries to kiss her and she refuses him. Her gun goes off in the scuffle. When she asks Guiteau if he's alright, he replies that he's more than alright and he assassinates President Garfield. Next we find Guiteau standing at the foot of the gallows reciting a poem, which he wrote on the morning of his death. The Balladeer describes his trial and execution as Guiteau cakewalks up and down the gallows steps ("The Ballad Of Guiteau").

Back in limbo, Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore implement their plan to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Moore has brought along her nine-year-old son and her dog, whom she accidentally shoots. The President, also clumsy, comes along, and in spite of his attempts to assist her collect some dropped bullets, Moore fails to assassinate him. Fromme's gun doesn't go off, so both attempts are botched. 

We move to Samuel Byck in his car on the way to the airport. He plans to hijack a plane and crash dive it into the White House. He recites a disjointed litany of complaints about contemporary American life and then announces the killing of the President as the only solution. The end of his monologue transitions to crowd noises blending into a wordess lament for the assassins' victims: Czolgosz, Booth, Hinckley, Fromme, Zangara, Guiteau, Moore, and Byck review their motives. They all want a prize they for their actions. The Balladeer tells them that hhere is no prize. The assassins, newly united with a common purpose, reply there is a different song stirring in America that continues to grow louder and louder, sung by all Americans who believe themselves dispossessed by the American dream ("Another National Anthem").

This moment leads us to the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas where Lee Harvey Oswald is preparing to kill himself in a storeroom on the Sixth Floor. Booth interrupts him and tries to convince him to murder President Kennedy instead. He summons Guiteau, Czolgosz, Zangara, Fromme, Moore, Byck and Hinckley from the shadows, telling Oswald that by joining them, he can at last be part of something ("November 22, 1963"). The assassins who preceded Oswald say he will bring them back; those who come after him say he will make them possible, by once again making assassination a part of the American experience. His act can give them historical power as a unified force, not as a bunch of isolated lunatics. Oswald refuses. Booth entices him with the information about the fame he will acquire, and the future assassinations he will inspire - including Hinckley's attempt. The assassins implore him to act so their own acts can be reborn. Finally, Oswald crouches at the window and shoots... 

The shocking impact of Oswald's deed is expressed by American citizens who gather together onstage to reflect on where they were when they heard President Kennedy had been shot ("Something Just Broke"). The assassins reappear in limbo asserting their need to be important ("Everybody's Got The Right - Reprise"). All of their guns go off at once and the curtain falls.