Photo: Carol Rosegg
Growing up in Australia, Danny Ginges was both fascinated and fearful of the atomic bomb, and as an adult delved deeper into the story of the scientists who created the monster. The more he discovered of these men (and woman) and their top-secret Manhattan Project, the clearer it became that one name was lesser known than the others.
Ginges was working in advertising in Sydney in 2002 when he wrote a screenplay revolving around Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American, Jewish physicist who conceived nuclear chain reaction. A decade later Ginges’s project has evolved into the big, polished, off-Broadway musical “Atomic,” on through August 16 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre.
“When I came across Szilard’s story it both engaged me and enraged me,” Ginges said. “My anger that such an important figure should be forgotten by history is the fuel that’s driven me this far, and continues to drive me every single day. I feel very strongly that Szilard has a message for today. Fifty years after his death, it’s high time it was told.”
Oppenheimer, performed by Euan Morton, narrates the fleet-footed show that includes a surprising mix of gleeful dancing and rock music (by Philip Foxman), a daring contrast with the tragedies of the Holocaust and World War ll (cue “Springtime for Hitler”). Book and lyrics are by Gregory Bonsignore and Ginges, who hopes “Atomic” restarts a dialog. ”A lot of people don’t want to deal with this event, even after this much time. But it’s better not to have things locked up in a closet.”
The antics of Italian scientist Enrico Fermi are hilarious (Jonathan Hammond in the showstopper “America Amore”) even if exaggerated. Masterfully played by Jeremy Kushnier, brilliant, cerebral Szilard comes off as more nuanced. Over the course of two hours, he appears driven and brutally honest, hyper-creative and at times just plain hyper. His relationship with his accomplished, sensitive future wife Trude Weiss (Sara Gettelfinger) is like that of any modern couple whose demanding jobs divide them geographically, and as Szilard says, have careers instead of kids.
“Atomic,” directed by Damien Gray, shares qualities with highly successful “All the Way” and the very smartly executed “Frost/Nixon.” Neil Patel designed the evocative, explosive sets. Madcap musical numbers are as entertaining as “Here Lies Love” and the saucy send-ups of “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
But the subject is serious, and the audience is clearly moved by how Szilard is conflicted, and ultimately heartbroken that the bomb he creates to compete with the Germans was actually dropped on Japan. The show details how the letter he gets Albert Einstein (whom he’d befriended in Berlin) to write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt resulted in the formation of the Manhattan Project.
Researcher Helen Weiss, one of two nieces of Szilard’s who attended the opening of “Atomic,” was pleased to see young audiences become more aware of this period of history, bringing Szilard into popular culture.
Alexis Fishman’s portrayal of Leona Woods, the only female scientist on the Manhattan Project, was especially well done, according to Weiss. She’s gratified by the resurgence of interest in her “peacemaking provocateur” uncle. Szilard’s archives are being digitized at UC San Diego and William Lanouette’s “Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard the Man Behind the Bomb” was recently republished. Ginges credits both Lanouette and author Richard Rhodes.
After leaving the world of physics, Szilard became a biologist, did cancer research and wrote science fiction. Diagnosed with bladder cancer, he devised a radiation therapy that he used to cure himself and thousands of others, then died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1964.
Ginges, who is Modern Orthodox with family from Hungary, finds Szilard inspiring and deserving. “I don’t see him as a victim. He always tried to find a solution. He failed to stop the bomb but he never gave up…He was definitely a humanist.” Besides fighting tirelessly against nuclear weapons, he founded the Council for a Livable World and helped create the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.