Sunday, April 10, 2005

"Ballad of Czolgosz" from Assassins by Stephen Sondheim

Alright, it's been a long weekend, in fact I just got done driving back from home, and I was playing this CD most of the way there and back (it's a 6-7 hour drive) and this song really stuck out for me (at least it's stuck in my head). In a brief overview of the story, the musical outlines 9 people who have attempted to assassinate the President of the United States through the years. Czolgosz was a poor laborer from Michigan who killed William McKinley. This sung by the Balladeer, a 20th century folk singer who sings some of the stories in retrospect. The song is very remniscant of the slightly jingoistic, very upbeat music that glorifies the turn of the century Progressive movement (Aaron Copland comes to mind). The song has two sections, basically a call and response. The first section get progressively longer, as each cadence extends out another measure. There are 3 of these "verses." The other section is a little more rhythmic, each downbeat being accented by a horn blast. Between each set of music portions we have spoken sections, dialogue from the stage, as each song occurs at the same time as the scene is being enacted. I like how at the beginning the song is very simple with the first section singing something about Czolgosz himself, then the second section telling about what he was thinking/doing. Each set of sections slowly grows larger, as the cadences get extended. Then we have these slight sections between that just meanders through the dialogue, then the Balladeer coming back in a little stronger than before. The most important line "In the USA you can work your way to the head of the line" is at the end of every section, growing in importance (also ironic, since Czolgosz waited in line for hours, waiting to McKinley, then shot him as they shook hands.) The last time this line is sung, a gun shot rings out and we learn Czolgosz completed his task, and the Balladeer repeats "to the head of the line." Even though the subject is rather gruesome, the music is constantly upbeat and almost cheery, which makes it seem even more satirical. I love this musical because it has all this upbeat music, but doesn't glorify the assassins or their actions, actually showing that in the end that they were trying to change the world, but really they didn't, the country moved on and they really didn't make a difference. Great music, great message.

NOTE: the Balladeer is played by Neil Patrick Harris, who for those who don't know made it big as a child actor is Doogie Howser, MD.

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