Advisory: “The Gun Song” in Context

By: Greg Campbell

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Assassins (1990) is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Assassins portrays a group of historical figures from varying periods who either assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States. The show explores what their presence in American history says about the ideals of their country.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a musical revue consisting of music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. In all, the show features 24 songs from 18 shows showcasing Sondheim’s career over a period of more than 60 years. Since it is a revue, songs are presented as excerpts without the full context of their source musicals. Two songs from Assassins—“Something Just Broke” and “The Gun Song”—are featured in Act II of Sondheim on Sondheim.

“Something Just Broke” appears at the end of Assassins, sung by a group of citizens from different time periods recounting the moment in their respective lives when they learned the President had been killed. “The Gun Song” and Assassins, by extension, are satirical and conceived as commentary on the glorification of guns and violence in American culture. “The Gun Song” does not promote or encourage violence, but instead employs dark humor to comment on societal issues.

In Assassins, “The Gun Song” is sung by John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Sara Jane Moore. Czolgosz reflects on how many people it takes to make a gun—from the mines to the steel mills to the factories—noting that many die along the way from the laboring.

Considering the reality of gun violence in America (and locally, here in Kansas City), we recognize some audience members may find the content of “The Gun Song” disturbing, and invite you to review the lyrics below in advance of Sondheim on Sondheim.

James Bundy, Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, remarked in the 2017 program from their production of Assassins, “For any of us confronting America’s turbulent history and competing values, it can be difficult to discern where rights end and privileges begin, and easy to let frustration and misapprehension quicken our impulses toward retribution, as opposed to empathy.”

Man 1 (Czolgosz)
It takes a lot of men to make a gun, hundreds,
Many men to make a gun:
Men in the mines to dig the iron,
Men in the mills to forge the steel,
Men at machines to turn the barrel,
Mold the trigger, shape the wheel
It takes a lot of men to make a gun…
One gun…

Man 3 (Booth)
And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and [click]

You can change the world

Why should you be blue
When you’ve your little finger?
Prove how just a little finger
Can change the world.

Man 1 (Czolgosz)
I hate this gun.

Man 4 (Giteau)
What a wonder is a gun!
What a versatile invention!
First of all, when you’ve a gun,
Everybody pays attention.

When you think what must be done,
Think of all that it can do:
Remove a scoundrel,
Unite a party,
Preserve the union,
Promote the sales of my book
Insure my future,
My niche in history,
And then the world will see
That I am not a man to over look! Ha-ha!

Man 1 (Czolgosz)
A gun kills many men before it’s done, hundreds,
Long before you shoot the gun:
Men in the mines
And in the steel mills, men at machines,
Who dies for what?
Something to buy,
A watch, a shoe, a gun,
A “thing” to make the bosses richer,
But a gun claims many men before it’s done…

One more.