Atomic: A New Musical
Especially, but not limited to those in the New York vicinity, I’d like to recommend Atomic: The Idea That Shook The World, a new off-Broadway musical that our family saw when we were in NYC last week. (Music and lyrics were written by my friend Phil Foxman.) Atomic tells the story of the Manhattan Project – i.e., the building of the atomic bomb – from the perspective of its largely unsung originator, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born Jew who studied under Albert Einstein in Berlin, leaving Nazi Germany in 1933 for the sanctity of, first London, and then New York, where he was invited to conduct research at Columbia University.
Szilard conceived and helped develop the nuclear chain reaction that allowed for the creation of the atomic bomb. When it was discovered, in 1939, that the Germans were working on something similar, Szilard, who understood the Nazi threat as both an exiled European Jew and a noted mathematician and physicist, enlisted the help of Einstein to convince President Roosevelt that the Americans should develop their own program. The result was the Manhattan Project (though much of the work took place in Chicago, from 1942-45), in which Szilard worked alongside and often in conflict with Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton, Leona Woods, Robert Oppenheimer, and others, all of whom are portrayed in the musical.
Atomic deals largely with Szilard’s ethical, personal, business and marital battles as he realizes the true potential horror of the bomb, specifically once it is finally ascertained, in the waning stages of the war, that the Nazis did not have the capacity to unleash such a weapon and yet that certain American military figures were determined to drop one on Japan regardless. Szilard again enlisted Einstein’s assistance in writing to what was now President Truman, but their pleas fell on deaf ears, the Allies dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the musical closes with the key members of the Manhattan Project reconvening (perhaps fictionally) many years later, pondering whether the 150-250,000 Japanese killed in the attacks had saved many more, perhaps millions, who would have died as a result of a full-scale invasion of that country. (Szilard: “If the Germans had dropped a nuclear bomb on Rochester and Buffalo and gone on to lose the war, don’t tell me wouldn’t have tried those responsible for its design for ear crimes at Nuremburg and had them hung?” Woods. “People come up to me at cocktail parties and ask whether, if the circumstances were the same, I would do it all over again? What’s that? The circumstances never can be the same again…?”)
It has been partly theorized that Szilard’s opposition to the use of the bomb he helped develop explains his lack of historical credit, though there is certainly no lack of biographical information out there about him. Regardless, Szilard lived out the rest of his life acting according to his conscience, founding the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946, alongside Einstein, and in 1962, around the time he developed radiation treatment to cure his own cancer, the Council for A Livable World. He died on May 30, 1964.
As regards as the musical, it’s fair to say that the subject matter is not exactly Spamalot. And while Atomic has its share of comic relief, especially by portraying Fermi as a playboy (see above), it is unquestionably heavy going. No matter: the performances were truly excellent, the sparse stage design worked superbly, the moment of the Hiroshima attack was portrayed with eloquently emotional invention, and my kids came home determined to learn more about atomic weapons in general, and Szilard in particular. (However, Phil Foxman had neglected to tell me that one song relies on the chorus “Fuck you!” – you are warned if you are planning on bringing your own children.) At a time when just about every musical on Broadway panders to a low common denominator of established music and family storylines, this off-Broadway production manages to both entertain and educate. Atomic plays at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street until August 16th.