Assassins opens in a fairground shooting gallery where, amid flashing lights, human figures trundle past on a conveyor belt. One by one, a collection of misfits enter the stage, where the Proprietor of the game entices them to play, promising that their problems will be solved by killing a President. (“Everybody’s Got the Right”). Leon Czolgosz, John Hinckley, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore are given their guns one by one. John Wilkes Booth enters last. The Proprietor introduces him to the others as their pioneer and begins distributing ammunition. The assassins take aim as “Hail to the Chief” heralds Abraham Lincoln’s offstage arrival. Booth excuses himself, a shot rings out and Booth shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis!”
In Scene 2, the Balladeer tells John Wilkes Booth’s story (“The Ballad of Booth”). Booth is writing his rationale for murder in his diary but the Balladeer interjects that Booth’s motives really had more to do with his personal problems. When Booth is wounded by a pursuing Union soldier he throws the Balladeer his diary so that he can tell his story to the world. The Balladeer reads out Booth’s self-justifications as Booth commits suicide. The Balladeer concludes that Booth was a madman whose legacy was butchery and treason and that in trying to destroy Lincoln, Booth elevated him to legend.
In Scene 3, Booth, Czolgosz, Hinckley, Zangara and Guiteau gather in a bar. Byck enters, asks if Richard Nixon has been seen around the bar, and leaves when he receives a negative answer. Guiteau toasts to the American Dream (“Ladies and Gentlemen, A Toast!”), telling of his ambition to become Ambassador to France. Zangara complains about his stomach pains, and Booth suggests fixing them by shooting the President. Hinckley accidentally breaks a beer bottle and Czolgosz flies into a rage, describing the horrors he sees in the bottle factory he works in, and how many men die or are injured just to make a bottle like the one Hinckley has just broken. Booth urges him to take control of his fate, and to break a bottle himself. But Czolgosz cannot.
Scene 4 opens with a radio report that Zangara has tried to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt. Five Bystanders are interviewed in turn, telling the audience their personal versions of the event; each is convinced that he or she personally saved the President (“How I Saved Roosevelt”, based on John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan). From an electric chair Zangara sings his refusal to be afraid and that he hadn’t cared who he killed as long as it was one of the men who control the money. Peeved that as an “American Nothing” he has no photographers at his execution, Zangara is electrocuted.
In Scene 5, American anarchist leader Emma Goldman gives a lecture from offstage as Leon Czolgosz listens, enraptured. He introduces himself to her and declares his love. She tells him to redirect his passion to the fight for social justice. She protests at his offer to carry her bag saying, “They make us servants, Leon. We do not make servants of each other,” but he insists.
In Scene 6, Fromme and Moore meet on a park bench. Fromme smokes a joint and speaks of mass murderer Charles Manson, remembering how they met and declaring herself his lover and slave. Juggling her purse, a can of Tab and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Moore claims she is an informant for the FBI (or used to be), has been a CPA, and had five husbands and three children. They connect over their shared hatred of their fathers, and, using Colonel Sanders as a graven image, they give the bucket of chicken the evil eye then shoot it to pieces. Fromme declares that Manson will emerge as king of a new order and make her his queen and Moore realizes that she had known Manson in High School and the scene ends as the women scream in delight over their memories of the charismatic killer.
Czolgosz appears in Scene 7, reflecting on how many men die in the mines, the steel mills and the factories just to make a gun. Booth, Guiteau and Moore enter one by one and join him in a barbershop quartet in which they point out one gun’s power to change the world (“Gun Song”). Czolgosz decides his gun will claim one more victim: the President.
In Scene 8, we see Czolgosz at the 1901 Pan American Exposition watching William McKinley shake visitors’ hands in the Temple of Music Pavilion. The Balladeer sings “The Ballad of Czolgosz” as Czolgosz joins the receiving line. When Czolgosz reaches McKinley he shoots him.
In Scene 9 Samuel Byck sits on a park bench in a dirty Santa suit with a picket sign and a shopping bag. He talks into a tape recorder, preparing a message to Leonard Bernstein telling Bernstein he can save the world by writing more love songs. Then he accuses Bernstein of ignoring him, just like the other celebrities.
In Scene 10, Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley sit together in Hinckley’s rumpus room exchanging reflections about their love objects, Charles Manson and Jodie Foster. Fromme mocks Hinckley for being in love with a woman he’s never met and he orders her out. After she goes, he sings (“Unworthy of Your Love”). Fromme returns to join him, singing of her love for Manson. Hinckley shoots at a photograph of Ronald Reagan projected on the wall but the picture keeps reappearing. Fromme mocks Hinckley, quoting Reagan’s famous quips about the assassination, as Hinckley fires and fires, missing each time.
In Scene 11 Charles Guiteau flirts with Sarah Jane Moore, giving her marksmanship tips before trying to kiss her. When she rebuffs him he goes to meet James Garfield at the train station. Guiteau asks to be made Ambassador to France, and when he is rebuffed, shoots the President.
Immediately following, Scene 12 shows Guiteau at the foot of the gallows singing a poem, written that morning, that he calls “I Am Going To The Lordy”. The Balladeer describes his trial and execution (“The Ballad of Guiteau”) as Guiteau cheerfully cakewalks up the stairs to the gallows, optimistically singing of heaven. Guiteau is hanged.
In Scene 13 Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore prepare to assassinate Gerald Ford. Moore has brought along her nine-year-old son and her dog. The President enters and attempts to help Moore collect her dropped bullets; she fails to assassinate him. Next Fromme tries, but her gun fails to go off. Moore resorts to throwing her bullets at him.
In Scene 14, Samuel Byck is on his way to the airport to hijack a plane, which he plans to crash dive into the White House. He records a message addressed to Richard Nixon, complaining about contemporary American life and announces that killing a President is the only solution.
In Scene 15 crowd noises supply a wordless lamentation for the victims of the assassins as the assassins reiterate their motives, and demand their prizes. The Balladeer tells them that their actions didn’t solve their problems or the country’s and that if they want their prizes they must follow the American Dream. The assassins realize that they will never get their prizes and unite with “Another National Anthem”, which grows louder and louder as they force the Balladeer offstage, a song to be sung by all Americans dispossessed by the dream.
In Scene 16, Lee Harvey Oswald appears, preparing to kill himself in a storeroom on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Booth interrupts him and convinces him to murder John F. Kennedy instead. Summoning the other assassins from the shadows, Booth tells Oswald that by joining them he will become part of the American experience, but Oswald refuses. Booth tells him that in the future, when Hinckley’s room is searched, Oswald’s biographies will be found. Summoning the voices of Arthur Bremer, Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray, Booth tells Oswald that the key to the future is in his hands. Oswald tries to leave, but Zangara addresses him passionately in Italian, a speech translated by the other assassins, imploring him to act so their own acts can come alive again. He has power. He can close the New York Stock Exchange, cause worldwide grief, inspire, finally, passion about a man the world has never cared about. As the assassins sing, imploring Oswald to act, he crouches at the window and shoots (“November 22, 1963″).
Scene 17 was not included in the original, but added to the London production by Sondheim and Weidman. In this scene, six Americans recount how they remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard Presidents Kennedy, Garfield, McKinley, and Lincoln had been shot (“Something Just Broke”).
In Scene 18, the assassins reappear, now with Oswald in their ranks. They restate their motto (“Everybody’s Got the Right” (reprise) and fire their guns at the audience.
Synopsis from Wikipedia
“Everybody’s Got the Right” – Proprietor and all assassins except Lee Harvey Oswald
“The Ballad of Booth” – Balladeer and John Wilkes Booth
“How I Saved Roosevelt” – Giuseppe Zangara and Ensemble
“Gun Song” – Leon Czolgosz, Booth, Charles Guiteau and Sara Jane Moore
“The Ballad of Czolgosz” – Balladeer and Ensemble
“Unworthy of Your Love” – John Hinckley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme
“The Ballad of Guiteau” – Guiteau and Balladeer
“Another National Anthem” – Proprietor, Balladeer and assassins except Oswald
“Something Just Broke” – Ensemble ++
“Everybody’s Got the Right” (Reprise) – Assassins