You’ve probably heard of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, but what about Leo Szilard, the true architect of the atomic energy? When history is written, sometimes the real heroes are forgotten.
The new Off-Broadway rock musical “Atomic” finally tells the thrilling true story of Szilard and The Manhattan Project, the U.S. government program that built that world’s first atomic bomb during World War II. Szilard first conceived of atomic power to benefit the human race, and “Atomic” explores his ethical and emotional struggles as he races to stop his creation from causing massive destruction.
The play makes its regional debut at Meadow Brooke Theatre Thursday night, with Ron Williams in the lead as Szilard and a live band conducted by Andy Peterson, who also plays first synthesizer.
Director Travis Walter first saw “Atomic” in New York last summer, and says it blew him away.
“I literally left going, ‘How did we not know about this guy? How did I not learn this in school?’ ” he says. “I ended up doing research on Leo Szilard for the next three weeks, because I just couldn’t believe that this scientist had been swept under the rug. I really think this is going to spark some interest in people.”
Nuclear war might seem like an odd thing to sing and dance about, but the play creator Danny Ginges says the show’s lyrics, pumping drums and searing synths and guitars help ratchet up the story’s pulse and make the material more accessible.
“I definitely wanted the subject to be approachable to get a wide audience, because I feel it’s a story that needs to be told,” Ginges says. “I think music opens emotional doors nothing else can, and it’s a very emotional story. Rock allows you to dial the energy up to eleven.”
“We were looking at an opera version of Oppenheimer’s story, and it bored the hell out of us,” laughs Phillip Foxman, who wrote the music for “Atomic.” “These people’s lives are really emotional and they’re big, and I think rock music can cover that kind of spectrum of emotion really well.”
“Atomic” has had two successful runs so far, in New York and Sydney, Australia. Foxman says audiences have responded enthusiastically, and some have walked away with a profound new sense of history. He tells of one particular experience after a show in New York.
“These Japanese girls came over to us crying, basically thanking us, because there’s nothing in the history they’re taught that someone actually tried to stop it,” he says, referring to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Szilard petitioned against. “For them, that was a massive realization.”
Ginges and Foxman have been working closely with Walter and his crew on pre-production, which Walter says is a rare and valuable experience for MBT. “Atomic” is pushing the company in terms of budget and scale, too.
“We want to keep the rock concert atmosphere of it, so we did end up renting some moving lights and some newer technology that the theatre doesn’t own,” Walter says.
Ginges and Foxman will take “Atomic” to Missouri in June.
“Meadow Brooke is our first original licensing, and it’s very exciting,” Ginges says. “They’re doing such a good job of it.”
Steven Sonoras is a Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Feb. 11-Mar. 6
2 p.m. Feb. 14, 20-21, 24, 28 and Mar. 2 and 5-6; 8 p.m. Feb. 11-12, 17-20, 24-26 and Mar. 2-5; 6 p.m. Feb. 13 and 27; 6:30 p.m. Feb. 14, 21 and 28
Meadow Brooke Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel, Rochester