Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.
There's a good chance that Tim Burton's movie version of Stephen Sondheim's Tony-winning 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street will be the first prolonged exposure to Sondheim for a lot of otherwise-knowledgeable pop fans. Although Sondheim has been a—if not the—leading light in American musical theater for almost four decades now, his work is so tied to the stage that audiences have had to make a special effort to see and hear it. And people who make that effort often find that the complex structures and broad theatricality of Sondheim's songs take some getting used to. Even Burton's film streamlines Sondheim, making Sweeney more pop and less operatic, while retaining the essence of the show's witty social studies.
Still, those who like what they hear in Sweeney Todd shouldn't fret too much over whether they're enjoying a bastardized version—especially since Sondheim himself oversaw the cutting, and approved the thinner voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Instead, fans of the movie should take advantage of that access-way to step more fully into the deeply rewarding, amply supplied world of Sondheim. The following Primer offers some suggestions for how to proceed, from the easiest-to-grasp Sondheim scores to those that require a little more effort.
(A note on the audio and video clips: Context is everything, and the samples below may appear over-earnest or silly when divorced from the dialogue and music that surrounds them. Consider them merely illustrative, and not fully representative of the shows in question.)
Sondheim's work isn't expressly autobiographical, but certain elements of his life story and personal obsessions definitely inform his songs. For example, it may not be important to know that Sondheim was born into a family of upper-class New York City dressmakers, but the fact that his father left his mother when Sondheim was 10, and that he was subsequently raised by his egocentric, domineering mother, may help explain the tentative paternal figures and outsized, shrewish maternal figures in Sondheim shows. Even more important to know: that Sondheim's parents allowed him to spend his days at the movies and the theater, where he soaked up the popular culture of the early 20th century.
Then at age 10, Sondheim met Jimmy Hammerstein, son of legendary Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, which gave Sondheim an opportunity to pick the master's brain. After graduating college in 1950, Sondheim dedicated himself to honing his songwriting skills and pitching his work around Los Angeles and New York. His gift for wordplay earned him some jobs penning TV scripts for the sitcom Topper, and it caught the attention of Broadway producers on the lookout for good lyricists. Sondheim finally broke through when he was asked to write the lyrics for 1957's West Side Story, and then for 1959's Gypsy—both of which were hailed by critics for their slangy flavor.
While Broadway's old guard would've been happy to keep Sondheim writing their words—the charge "he can't write melodies" plagued Sondheim early and often—he finally got a chance to add music with 1962's A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a gay romp through ancient Rome that matches a broad farce by book-writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with punny, bawdy songs like "Comedy Tonight" and "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid." A staple of student productions almost from the moment it opened on Broadway, Forum can either be a delightful night out at the theater or an intolerably hammy mess, depending on the players and the pace. But either way, it really has to be seen to be "gotten," because while the songs are terrific, they're composed with a roaring audience in mind. (Just listen to "That'll Show Him," from the original production's cast album; without the context of the story or the reactions of the jilted lover that this concubine is singing to, the humor comes out overly dry.)
Despite the massive successes of Gypsy, West Side Story, and Forum—or perhaps because of the failure/obscurity of early-'60s productions like Anyone Can Whistle and Evening Primrose—Sondheim was still considered something of a utility player by the time he, producer-director Harold Prince, and playwright George Furth brought Company to Broadway in 1970. Early reviewers were baffled by the musical's unusual subject matter and structure. The show takes place at the birthday party for the unattached friend of a group of New York couples, and flashes back to his problematic relationships—both with women and with his pals—while the songs describe the characters' inner lives more than they propel the plot. Where critics were cautious, audiences responded deeply to Furth's comic portrayal of restless Manhattanites, and especially to Sondheim's songs, which ranged from vaudeville romps to modern pop, all laced with direct, sometimes painfully open sentiment. Whether he's describing the necessary pains of romance in "Being Alive" or mocking the quirks of modern marriage in "The Little Things You Do Together" (as seen below during the recording of the original cast album), Sondheim channeled a lot of the angst in the air at the dawn of the '70s into a set of songs at once broadly theatrical and true.
Following the ambitious, near-glorious failure of 1971's Follies—more on that later—Sondheim and Prince rebounded with 1973's A Little Night Music, a loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night that follows the romantic travails of three couples during a weekend in the country. Lightly lyrical and set almost entirely in waltz-time, A Little Night Music picks up on Company's sometimes cruelly frank exploration of adult relationships and ties it more specifically to sex: who's avoiding it, who's overindulging in it, and who's waiting impatiently. Sondheim enjoyed the closest thing he's ever had to a pop hit with the show's "Send In The Clowns"—recorded by folksinger Judy Collins in a version somewhat divested of the song's original meaning—and A Little Night Music has been a staple of regional theater ever since. But while it's smart and funny and abundantly tuneful, the show also has an acid tinge that gives nearly every production a bitter aftertaste, reflected in the premonition of disappointment in its rousing anthem, "The Miller's Son" (seen below from a 1990 production that aired on PBS but has not been made available on DVD; this song is among many missing from the turgid 1978 film adaptation, which sacrifices roughly half the score and nearly all the wit.)
Following A Little Night Music, Sondheim spent the better part of a decade indulging his more experimental side, sometimes with great success (Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George) and sometimes less so (Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along). But he struck gold in 1987 when he and Sunday book-writer James Lapine re-teamed for Into The Woods, an alternately farcical and penetrating examination of the psychological underpinnings of classic fairy tales. The show's first act may be the most purely fun hour of theater Sondheim has ever been involved with, as it sends Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and a childless couple on a set of intertwined quests that end ridiculously but happily. Then the second act starts, and the characters still feel faintly dissatisfied—at first in amusing ways, and later not so much. In some ways, Into The Woods treads into territory Sondheim hadn't covered since Forum, with its recontextualizing of well-known archetypes and its broadly comic lyrics. But from the domineering maternal witch that drives the action to the climactic sense of isolation and fear, the show is quintessentially Sondheim. It may be the best place for novices to start, in that it's readily accessible yet also smart and moving.
(In the clip below, approximating the original Broadway production, Little Red Riding Hood grows up a little, and not without a bit of pain.)
Around the time that Sondheim was prepping Company, he began contributing a regular word-puzzle feature to New York magazine, which is a biographical tidbit as important in its way as the anecdotes about him hanging around the Hammerstein family. Sondheim is a notorious puzzle-freak who loves word games and murder mysteries, and while that playful side is obviously evident in his lyrics, it also informs his music in ways not so obvious. Sondheim's dominant compositional mode is one of pastiche, wherein he sets out to write a show's key songs in a rigid or imitative style: like the waltzes in A Little Night Music, or the music-hall ribaldry of Forum. As his career has gone on, though, Sondheim has increasingly broken those songs into pieces, before stringing the fragments throughout the rest of the score. As he writes in Sunday In The Park With George, "The art of making art is putting it together," and Sondheim prefers to make the puzzle as tough as he can for himself.
After the success of Company, Sondheim re-teamed with Harold Prince on the 1971 musical Follies, which follows a similarly loose structure but is far more ambitious. Set during a reunion of a group of old vaudeville performers, the musical considers their decades of disappointment, both in show business and in their personal lives. It's a downer show, steeped in the ironic contrast between its peppy old-timey music and the often scaldingly sarcastic lyrics. Follies can be a hard piece to enter, in large part because its emotions are more abstract and conceptualized than the direct appeal of Company. Its original staging was also incredibly expensive, with multiple costume and set changes, such that even though the show was reasonably well-received by critics and audiences—and Tony voters, who made it Sondheim's second consecutive Best Original Score-winner—it closed early, doomed by cost overruns. Follies rarely gets mounted in full today, and instead thrives in "concert" versions, where performers simply sing the songs and skip the story. The show contains some of Sondheim's most enduring songs, too, and none better than "I'm Still Here," a pithy, subtly desperate testament to showbiz endurance that many a grand dame of American and British theater has belted out, both in and out of the context of the show. (Below, Shirley MacLaine simultaneously impresses and embarrasses daughter Meryl Streep with an "impromptu" rendition at a dinner party in Postcards From The Edge.)
Shortly after Follies, Sondheim rebounded commercially with A Little Night Music, then had another costly flop with the conceptually bold Pacific Overtures. (More on the latter below.) When he got back together with Night Music's book-writer Hugh Wheeler for a musical adaptation of Christopher Bond's 1973 play about murderous barber Sweeney Todd—a popular figure in 19th-century "penny dreadful" pamphlets—the idea looked like another disaster-in-the-making. Instead, when Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street opened in 1979, it captured the public imagination and became one of the rare Sondheim hits. Never underestimate the masses' taste for viscera, which Sweeney Todd provides via a story that has a vengeance-minded ex-con slitting the throats of upper-class Brits and then giving their corpses over to his landlady to be baked into meat pies. But while Sweeney Todd contains some of Sondheim's loveliest songs ("By The Sea," "Pretty Women," "Johanna") and some of his funniest ("A Little Priest," "The Worst Pies In London"), it's also a challenging work. Musically, it approaches operetta, with many of the exchanges between characters sung instead of said, and the show's various musical themes weave in and out of the score so freely that a lot of the songs have no clear beginning or end. And in spite of moving numbers like "Not While I'm Around" (sung by the pie-maker before she attempts to murder the child she loves), Sweeney Todd engages the intellect more than the emotions, as it comments on the varying modes of exploitation in a class-based society. (The clip below is from a concert performance of Sweeney, and features the quartet "Kiss Me"/"Ladies In Their Sensitivities," which didn't fully survive in Burton's movie.)
After Sweeney, Sondheim suffered the failure of Merrily We Roll Along—the first of his productions in more than a decade that was as much a creative misstep as a commercial one—and thus decided to pursue alternative methods of developing shows, outside the Broadway system. Working for the first time with book-writer James Lapine, Sondheim built Sunday In The Park With George, a musical about pointillist painter Georges Seurat, in public workshops that allowed the collaborators to hone the piece performance by performance. The finished musical is as complex and intellectually engaging as Sweeney Todd, but it's also a deeply personal show, expressing Sondheim's doubts and worries about the process of creation, as well as how it feels to stand in the shadow of masters. Musically, Sunday follows the lead of its subject, poking short melodic passages into groups, so that the cumulative effect of the score becomes greater than its individual pieces. In the era of blockbuster musicals like Cats and Les Miz, Sunday In The Park With George didn't connect with a huge audience (or even with Tony voters), but it won a Pulitzer prize, and a devoted cult who responded deeply to Sondheim's sincerity. During productions of Sunday, it's not unusual to see audience members sob their way through the final half-hour or so, right up to the transcendent moment at the end when the artist faces another blank page and whispers, "So many possibilities." (In the clip below, Broadway's original "George," Mandy Patinkin, sings "Finishing The Hat," a song that articulates the awkward feeling of trying to preserve moments in time in art, while even more moments are passing by. The end result of all the fuss and sacrifice? "Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat.")
After re-teaming with Lapine for Into The Woods, Sondheim worked on easily his most controversial show, Assassins, a sour study of the American dream, as represented by all the men and women who've plotted to kill American presidents. Dismissed as shrill and in poor taste during its 1990 off-Broadway run, Assassins has proved popular in regional theater—especially at colleges—and had a triumphant 2004 Broadway revival. Both Sondheim's score and John Weidman's book are fairly blunt in their explication of how the can-do American spirit leads to lone gunmen feeling that "everybody's got the right" to do what they want, up to and including murdering their leaders. And for everyone who complained that Sondheim stopped writing memorable melodies in 1973, Sondheim responded with arguably his catchiest and most eclectic set of songs, concocting a study of American pop spanning two centuries. The music weaves into the theme, most notably in "The Ballad Of Czolgosz," a rousing anthem of optimism that features the lyric, "You've been given the freedom to work your way to the head of the line." (In this case, to shoot William McKinley.)
One knock against Sondheim's career is that his influence on musical theater has been either non-existent or pernicious. (Oddly enough, the best example of Sondheim influence on popular culture may be Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's score for Disney's Beauty And The Beast.) Performers love to sing his songs—"So-and-so sings Sondheim" remains a popular cabaret attraction—but the composers who've emerged in his wake have lacked his skill at deconstruction and reconstruction. The decades since Company have seen a lot of overtly complicated shows in which the songs are either straight, shallow pop (without Sondheim's wit or transcendence), or just tuneless prattle. And frankly, Sondheim at his most "difficult" can himself sound a lot like the latter.
Because Sondheim likes to approach some shows like puzzles to be solved, he's been known to construct music that satisfies the parameters he sets out for himself, without necessarily satisfying audiences. Such was the case with Pacific Overtures, the brilliant but initially off-putting musical Sondheim wrote with his future Assassins librettist John Weidman in 1976. Tracing the mid-19th-century policy shifts in Japan from isolationism to westernization to empire-building, Pacific Overtures utilizes Japanese scales and tonalities in combination with Western theatricality, in a fusion that to many ears sounds dissonant and amelodic. But Pacific Overtures rewards return visits, and has been revived over the years to a warmer reception that it originally received. (Those revivals include a mounting in Japan in which the locals were quite taken with Sondheim and Weidman's distinctly Western interpretation of their national psychology.) The show is frequently puckish in its imagining of how the Japanese received and interpreted their first western visitors, but it retains the poignancy that attends the loss of a culture—particularly in the achingly beautiful song "A Bowler Hat," in which a former samurai moves over the years from cautious admiration of European ways to thorough dissatisfaction with his life, in the face of Western possibility. (In the clip below, the song "Someone In A Tree" relates the first meeting between emissaries from the west and Japanese diplomats, as told from the memories of an old man, the perspective of his younger self, and the ears of a samurai hiding beneath the treaty house. Sondheim has at various times called this his favorite song, and it certainly fits alongside the whole of Sunday In The Park With George as a moving meditation on how history doesn't happen unless someone records it. It's also one of many Sondheim songs in which the pieces come together at the end to form a greater whole.)
After triumphing with Sunday and Into The Woods, Sondheim took a few lumps on their third collaboration, the delirious 1994 romantic tragedy Passion. Working harder than ever defy musical theater convention, Sondheim composed a score with very few "buttons"—summary moments where the audience is expected to applaud—and indeed dispensed with verses, choruses and hooks altogether, in favor of songs that range freely. Based on an Italian film (and novel) about a sickly woman who attaches herself to a visiting soldier, Passion questions whether love is an emotional response or an intellectual one—or even something purely chemical. But while the show plays beautifully in the imagination, on stage in its original run, it was a little too on-the-nose for some audiences. In particular, Donna Murphy's performance—as a gawky woman who reads too much into a kindly man's attempts to comfort her—treads a line between powerfully tragic and laughably monstrous. On an off night, she could come off like a mopey mole, popping up at the most inopportune times. But Passion has its fervent supporters, and the version of the show with Murphy that's been preserved on DVD makes the strongest case for Passion as an underappreciated gem. The disc even contains a commentary track in which Sondheim, Lapine and Murphy go over what went wrong and what went right with Passion—a hidden master class, available for 20 bucks. (The clip below isn't from the DVD, but is a medley of songs from Passion performed at The Tonys by the original cast.)
Throughout his career, Sondheim has embraced theater for its ephemerality and its spirit of collaboration, which means it's impossible to call any one of his shows "locked down." A different cast or a different director has been known to inspire new songs (or the return of old ones that were cut from the show because the original cast couldn't do them justice). Sondheim works closely with his producers, directors, stars and writers, and puts himself in their service as much as they to him. So if someone calls up and wants to do a one-off concert performance of Follies, or to make a movie of Sweeney Todd, or to stage Company with the cast playing all the instruments on stage, Sondheim offers his services to supervise and retool, while remaining open to what the instigator wants to do. Not for nothing is the most devastatingly emotional part of Sunday In The Park With George the concluding bars of the final song, when everyone on stage lets the last note of "Sundaaaaaay" drag on, so that they can spend as long as they can together. Sharing time with others is one of the sublime pleasures of life celebrated by Sondheim's work. That said, there are some Sondheim-related shows and collaborations that work better than others. The revue Putting It Together, for example, pilfers songs from various Sondheim projects and puts them in service of a light comedy set at a dinner party. It's hard not to consider the original context of songs like "Pretty Women" (a costly pre-murder hesitation in Sweeney Todd) or "Unworthy Of Your Love" (a duet between Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley in Assassins) as they're repurposed to become banter between sophisticated couples. Although Sondheim helped put together Putting It Together, the show skims lightly across the surface of his oeuvre, picking up only its most unctuous qualities. (The earlier revues Side By Side By Sondheim and Marry Me A Little do better, by presenting the songs with minimal set-up.)
Sondheim hasn't done much straight pop songwriting, but he did provide five songs for Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, and two of them in particular—"Back In Business" and "Sooner Or Later"—have become standards. The latter won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and briefly furthered the notion that Madonna could become a movie star.
Sondheim also provided music for Beatty's Reds, a score for Alain Resnais' Stavisky, and songs for The Birdcage and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. But perhaps his most unusual and personal dalliance with cinema came when he co-wrote the script for the 1973 murder mystery The Last Of Sheila with his buddy Anthony Perkins. The movie tries to marry Sondheim's bleak vision of human interaction with his love of puzzles, and thus becomes too much of an intellectual game to really engage as a film. But it's funny and surprising, and definitely fits into the bigger Sondheim picture.
Not every Sondheim flop has been rediscovered and retroactively praised. A few of his shows languish in limbo, performed very rarely; although in each case, rumors persist that Sondheim will someday return to them and fix their lingering problems.
After the rapturous reception of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Sondheim collaborated with book-writer Arthur Laurents on Anyone Can Whistle, a labored satire on small-town conformity, set in a community that concocts a miracle in order to draw tourists, then is undone by the release of a batch of lunatics from a local asylum. The show is very much in the early '60s "sick" comedy vein of Jules Feiffer and Nichols & May, and may in fact be a little late to the party. But Sondheim's music is often amazing, kicking off his career-long mission to make complex ideas—and complex musical arrangements—seem simple and relatable. Anyone Can Whistle sports a pair of bravura 10-minute set pieces, but its enduring numbers are the straightforward paeans to uniqueness: "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Anyone Can Whistle," and "Everybody Says Don't" (the latter heard below from the 1965 cast album).
On the heels of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim re-teamed with Company's George Furth and Harold Prince for a musical adaptation of George Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 comedy Merrily We Roll Along, about the rise of a stuck-up show business bigwig. Like the play, the musical starts in the present and moves backwards scene by scene, to show how a powerful man alienated his friends and lost his ideals. Even though it ends on a hopeful note, with the future bright and the possibilities limitless, the characters are a little more removed and a little less likable than in the Sondheim shows before or since. (They're like the self-absorbed sophisticates in Company, but without the cuddly side.) The show washed out on Broadway in 1981 after only 16 performances, and has been tinkered with extensively in subsequent re-stagings. But even though Merrily We Roll Along contains some snappy, sharply observed songs (like "Franklin Shepherd Inc.," seen below from the recent D.C. Sondheim festival, with the magnificent Raúl Esparza taking the lead), this is one case where Sondheim's fragmented melodies don't do the show any favors. If we can't get close to the characters through the book, we need to know them better through the songs, and Sondheim's disjunctions keep the audience at bay.
Most recently Sondheim has re-teamed with his Assassins/Pacific Overtures book-writer John Weidman (and, for the first time since Merrily, with producer Harold Prince) for Bounce, a light-spirited gambol through early 20th century America, as seen through the eyes of two opportunistic brothers who take a crack at gold-prospecting, fight-management and creating an artists' colony in Florida. The story had been a Sondheim pet project for over a decade by the time it was first workshopped in 1999, and though it has yet to be mounted in New York—in large part because of several less-than-spectacular out-of-town tryouts—Sondheim hasn't give up on the show yet, and is reportedly planning to present a retooled version next year. The bones of a good musical are evident in the small handful of strong, romantic retro-pop songs on the 2003 cast album, though during its last go-round, Bounce was still coming off as too shallow, and too much of a rehash of earlier Sondheim ideas (both musical and thematic). Still, if Sondheim and Weidman can give the show a little more kick, it could have a long life in repertory, if only because of catchy numbers like "Talent" (as seen below).
1. Sunday In The Park With George
In the first act, Sondheim and book-writer James Lapine imagine the painstaking process that Georges Seurat might have gone through to create "A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte," risking personal relationships, his professional reputation, and the chance to engage naturally with all those still figures on his canvas. The oft-criticized second act broadens the scope of the piece, moving to the modern day and a fictional Seurat descendent, struggling with his own art, and with the legacy of his great-grandfather. Because the second act begins with "Putting It Together," Sondheim's ruthless description of the business hustle required to build a career as an artist, some people have read Sunday In The Park as a shallow study of the contrasts between the purity of 19th century painting and the commercialization of modern art. But it's really a much more personal show. In Act II's melancholy "Lesson #8," the younger George reflects on "A Sunday Afternoon" and wonders not just whether he'll ever create anything as good, but whether he'll ever get to experience such a glorious day. "George would have liked to see people out strolling on Sunday," he sings. Wouldn't we all.
(Where to see/hear Sunday: The 2006 London revival is the best audio representation of the show, and the original Broadway production is available on an excellent DVD, featuring a commentary track by Sondheim, Lapine, and stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. A Broadway revival is due next year.)
Though Sondheim and George Furth's seriocomic look at messy modern relationships is in some ways just a window into one specific place and time—Manhattan in the swingin' early '70s—the overarching theme of the show is more timeless. Company's restless single guy hero, Bobby, craves the stability and companionship that his married friends enjoy, even as he's terrified by the way they all seem shackled to a life of petty squabbles and sexual starvation. In the show's climactic song, "Being Alive" (seen below at the 2007 Tony Awards), Bobby seems ready to grow up and commit to a long-term relationship, although his enthusiasm is tempered by his understanding of what he's looking for: "Someone to hold you too close. Someone to hurt you too deep."
(Where to see/hear Company: The cast album for the 2006 Broadway revival gives a fuller representation of the show than the original cast album, but the 1970 cast album features more era-evoking orchestration. The recording sessions for the 1970 album were also filmed by D.A. Pennebaker for the documentary by Original Cast Album: Company, which is available on an essential DVD.)
3. Into The Woods
How does Sondheim's funniest and most approachable show also become his most emotionally overpowering? Two simple words: "I wish." That sentiment sets the story in motion, and sends all the classic fairy tale characters into the woods to get what they want. But even after everything ends happily, they're not satisfied. Act II deals with how the characters mature and learn to cope—as beautifully expressed in the ballad "No One Is Alone"—yet even after everyone moves once again to a more contented place, the final line of the show is one more chirpy "I wish." Some may find it funny and even comforting to think that Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and everyone else will set out on another journey after the curtain falls, but the final "I wish" is also a heartbreaking comment on how life is. Everything's in its proper place. And yet…
(Where to see/hear Into The Woods: The original production, as seen above, is still the best, and is available on DVD. The cast album too was recently remastered, and sounds terrific.)
4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
For all the experimentation of Anyone Can Whistle, Follies and Pacific Overtures, it was in Sweeney Todd that Sondheim first reached the higher level of sophistication he'd been striving for. Combining the suspense movie signatures of Bernard Hermann with the jaunty operetta of Gilbert & Sullivan, Sondheim creates something complex yet populist, to match a story in which a working-class bloke savages the rich for pleasure and profit. It's a measure of Sweeney's greatness that it's been performed wonderfully in countless eclectic stagings, from the industrial nightmare of the original to the most recent John Doyle-conceived Broadway production, in which the actors are also the orchestra, providing the music on stage. (The medley below, from the 2006 Tonys, features "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd," which is unfortunately missing from Tim Burton's otherwise fine film.)
(Where to see/hear Sweeney: There's scarcely been a cast album or DVD of this show that's not worth hearing or seeing, but the DVD of the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn version is especially worth getting, if only to see how the original staging looked. On CD, the Doyle production is peerless, primarily because of the presence of Patti LuPone, the best Mrs. Lovett. Oh, and there's also a certain movie version that may be in a theater near you right now.)
As with a lot of Sondheim shows, Assassins is enjoyable on several levels. On the surface it's a breezily ironic glance back at American history, turning our most notorious murderers into lovable cartoons. But just below the surface, Sondheim and John Weidman rage against the thick streak of American narcissism that gives birth to these madmen. Just listen to the litany of complaints that the killers spit out in "Another National Anthem," or the explication/perversion of our national principles in "Everybody's Got The Right" (seen below at The Tonys). Maybe telling our children that they're special people who should follow their dreams isn't always the best idea. After all, some kids never hear an encouraging word, and still turn out to be Sondheim.
(Where to see/hear Assassins: No production is available on DVD, but the cast album for the 2004 revival contains a lot of the dialogue from the show, and gives a good sense of what an evening with Assassins is like.)