Performing in FWOP, I most loved getting to scare the shit out of the audience as the Proprietor, for which I received the most praise for my smile. But when my dad asked me, “Why does your character smile so much?” I forgot that my reasoning isn’t intuitive. It took the entire production for me to get a small grasp of who the Proprietor is, and what motivates him. So why does the Proprietor smile? Allow me to offer my interpretation.
The Proprietor tells the audience his message most explicitly in one of the last songs, “Another National Anthem.” The Proprietor rejects the “song” sung by those who enjoy the fruits of America’s wealth. This contrasts with the Balladeer, who claims the anthem still rings true. Throughout the show, they both attempt to convince the Assassins, and thus the audience, of their position. Each scene the Balladeer is in, their goal is to prove how failure is a matter of work ethic. The Proprietor lures vulnerable Americans into his game so he can make his point: these assassins would never obtain their prize. Every game they played was rigged.
This leaves the audience with a seeming contradiction. If the game the Proprietor offers, that of shooting the president, is rigged by the Proprietor, then it doesn’t make sense for the assassins to side with him in “Another National Anthem.” They understand that the game is rigged. They should fight against the systems that rigged it, i.e. the Proprietor. The answer is because the Balladeer is wrong about the anthem. The Balladeer is the archetype of liberal capitalism, claiming the only quality needed to succeed is the hard work to win a prize. Sure, everyone lives in lies, but America is the place to “make the lies come true.” To the Balladeer, the assassins got what was deserved.
These assassins already played other games in the carnival. Czolgosz and Guiteau couldn’t get better work. Zangara doesn’t get treatment for his stomach. Fromme, Byck and Hinckley don’t get the attention they desire. Moore and Booth can’t make their statement. Now they are desperate, searching for someone who will validate their grievances. The Proprietor offers his hand. However, the Proprietor doesn’t steer these characters in a constructive direction. Instead, he fuels their spite. The assassins don’t care about fixing their problems. Instead, they vengefully shout to the country, “this is what you have done to me!” They conclude there is no solution. There is only destruction.
The Proprietor is also driven by spite. He sees America’s inequalities too. To prove the Balladeer wrong, he turns Americans against the American anthem, and he finds sadistic glee in his success. He smiles when he finds victims to radicalize. He sits back when they aim for the president, and he is happy to be the executioner against each assassin.
It is in his role as executioner where the Proprietor reveals his colors. He isn’t a rebellious outsider. Instead, he stands alongside the Balladeer as a part of the American machine. In this way, he displays to the audience that he didn’t just rig his own game—he rigged them all. The Proprietor is the one who keeps people from succeeding in America. He rigs the game, exclaims that it’s rigged, and then insists the way to fix it is by playing another extreme, rigged game. The Balladeer, in their effort to bolster the American dream, denies the Proprietor’s power, which leads to the anthem’s downfall.
The Proprietor represents something to me through the act of rigging the system, calling out that it’s rigged, and then rigging
it further. It reminds me of a specific political block. It’s what Republicans do when they complain about national debt and then cut taxes for the rich. It’s what pundits like Tucker Carlson do when they fetishize freedom of speech but accuse protesters of being anti-American. It’s what Trump did when he sued over voter fraud while coercing governors to “find” hundreds of votes in their states in 2020. Then, just like when the Proprietor emboldened the assassins to attack the Balladeer, so too did Trump with his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Proprietor is a fascist; but he’s a specific kind. The Proprietor doesn’t care about the people he uses, only the pain he can inflict on his enemies for believing America could ever be good for its people. He only cares about the power he wields to torture those he hates. He’s an anti-American coated in the country’s flag, claiming to be a patriot when his actions contradict such claims. The musical, Assassins debuted in 1990. Even so, this other national anthem rings in my ears. I believe even today, the Proprietor still has something to smile about.