Friday, May 20, 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

"Nuking" something in the microwave (that's not what's happening at all, by the way).  Experiencing the "fallout" from a fight.  Visiting a real or metaphorical "ground zero" of an explosion (or most famously, at the World Trade Center site after 9/11).  Having a "meltdown."  Going "nuclear" on someone or using "the nuclear option" in congress.  Setting in motion a "chain reaction." Even saying something is "the bomb" (which I sometimes still say, I'm a nineties kid, sue me).  Our global politics, our pop culture, our language...there's nothing atomic weaponry hasn't affected in the 70 years since its arrival.

Just a week into rehearsals, Atomic director Scott Miller commented that the musical was a bit of a departure from the type of bread-and-butter musicals New Line Theatre specialized in: the smart-ass, sassy, even absurdist comedy-dramas that are smart, but also often winking at the audience.  Atomic is not that.  It has moments of charm, humor, and even whimsy, but overall it's an earnest story, there's no irony in the performances.  What's so weird about that?  Well, because for years now, something as horrific as nuclear weapons and atomic warfare has been something of a joke, or sci-fi fantasy fodder.

Take one of the favorite cartoonists from my childhood, Gary Larson, creator of "The Far Side" comics.  He had a fascination with them, for sure. Guys fishing spot mushroom clouds in the distance, and happily declare all fishing rules and regs null and void; a practical-joking physicist stands behind a colleague - who's assembling a nuclear weapon - ready to pop a bag and scare him; suburban housewives eyeball warheads in their neighbor's driveways like a new Chevy, and other fun stuff.  This one is one of my favorites:

I had to ask my parents what the "trees with rings around them" were, and my dad's explanation was maybe my first exposure to nuclear weapons.  For a kid growing up in the cold war era, "nukes" were of such a horrific, world-ending power, the only way we can wrap our minds around them is to joke.  From the masterpiece Dr. Strangelove to  the infamous scene of "nuking the fridge" in the latest installment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, nuclear weapons are still scary, but like many scary things, we make light of them, we fetishize them, we write them in, all to gain a better understanding of what they mean and what we ourselves think of them. 

That's not how this works...that's not how any of this works!

The challenge of Atomic is to set this aside for awhile.  To compartmentalize the aforementioned comedy, as well as bits of horror-porn like the shocking scene from Terminator 2: Judgement Day where our heroine is blown to pieces by an atomic blast as she watches a bucolic scene of innocence (it's always a bucolic scene of innocence, isn't it?) on a playground, even the famously over-the-top political ad by the Lyndon B. Johnson 1964 presidential campaign:

Atomic takes place at a time when people were only first conceiving of what atomic warfare meant.  Our main protagonist, Leo Szilard, over the course of the musical, is consistently trying to sound the alarm about the weapon's massive power and destructive capabilities.  In his moving song, "the atom bomb is here," he correctly envisions what the bomb actually does and how it looks to its victims.  It's a haunting moment.  The writers here did most of the heavy lifting.  For anyone exposed to pop culture in the past decades, it's a shocking and sobering trip back in time.  Our challenge in this musical is to put the audience there and to have them feel the stakes these scientists and military officials must have felt, before the bomb became more of a sci-fi boogeyman and a metaphor for human folly. I'll still read "The Far Side" though, any day, but it's great to see an art form take such a straight-ahead treatment of this subject.  I hope it gets audiences thinking and talking.  After all, the atom bomb is still here.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

World of Gray: The Aftermath of the Aftermath

When I was in college, my boyfriend at the time was getting his Bachelor of Sciences in History.  I was intrigued at the time by the book he was reading, Judgment at the Smithsonian.  The book details the exhibit which was to be - using the famous Enola Gay as the focal point -  but never was - calling it "Banned History."

Colonel Paul Tibbets Waves from his plane, the Enola Gay.

In short?  The original exhibit as planned, which was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was scrapped and censored for a far more sanitized, even patriotic approach. The person who originally conceived the exhibit was Martin Harwit, a Cornell University professor, former serviceman and historian at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  What apparently made it controversial was that it attempted to capture not only the events that led up to the bombing, but also the real and lasting impact the bomb had on the people who were affected by it, including the scientists who created it, to the military team that dropped it, to the victims of it.  It also questioned the common assumption that bombing the two cities in such a way saved lives instead of letting the war drag on.  As news of the exhibit spread, Veterans' groups complained to the then largely conservative congress, and the Smithsonian was forced to bow to public pressure and remove some of the more "controversial" images, including photos of destruction and burned victims, etc.  In addition, Harwit was forced to resign under the mounting pressure, almost in the same fashion Leo Szilard was pushed out of his own project.  There was a lot at stake - a fight over what really happened, a fight over the moral high ground and certitude.   We are still fighting this fight.  You only need to check out the Amazon reviews of Harwit's account to see how divided we STILL are on this, and what exactly constitutes "revisionist history," a term that's been fought over a lot in recent years.

After 9/11, we saw this same type of fight to elbow out nuances and details - gray area - in the "war on terror."  It became unpatriotic to even try to seek out why another cultural group - Muslim extremists -  might want to kill Westerners, short of empty explanations that "they're evil" or "they hate our freedoms."  It tends to have a chilling effect on discussion, even if it goes nowhere near unpatriotic sentiment.  We're uncomfortable with gray areas.  We don't like to see ourselves as culpable.
The Genbaku Dome today is the site of a peace memorial.

The Hiroshima Genbaku Dome following the bombing.

The 50th anniversary exhibit that never was - and what happened to it - has itself prompted a lot of writing and thinking about how  we teach history, and how we remember it, and, as the hit musical Hamilton asks, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"  The account in Judgment at the Smithsonian was probably a good meta-study for a student of history.

In Atomic, we see this play out from beginning to end in the production.  The questions still aren't answered.  When the song "What I tell myself" is sung toward the end of the show, it's a haunting "affirmation" of the decision.  "I did what I did 'cause I thought it the right thing to do..." but it's still just "what [they tell themselves]" just to be able to sleep - it's not what they necessarily believe any longer.  The plaintive lullaby tune of the song serves to underline the need to calm their own nerves about it.  Earlier in the production, the character Arthur Compton (played with steely-eyed gruffness by Ryan Scott Foizey) tries to reason with an agonizing Szilard (played brilliantly by Zak Farmer) by explaining to him how he sees past his own "World of Gray" where nothing is ever 100%, and relating why that is hard in particular for a scientist, who lives by exact figures. 

Throughout the musical, Szilard sees his research get away from him and become dangerous, almost like the chain reaction he helps discover.  On the whole, Atomic is another way, another art form, to find and air out these moral questions once again.  What it does well is that it makes the stakes once again feel high, even if the "language" of nuclear warfare, how we talk about it, and even the bomb itself - seem nowadays part of our everyday life...(to be continued).

Friday, April 22, 2016

Where is Home? Thoughts on "Atomic" during Passover

There's a scene at the beginning of Schindler's List where you see the Shabbos candles lit and burning, then the family fades out of the room, while the candles are left to burn into curls of smoke in an empty and darkened house.  Here one minute, gone the next; families, whole neighborhoods, millions of people disappeared.  The countries that Leo Szilard and his loved ones lived in while still in Europe - Hungary, Germany, England - were all affected by the war, but it was Berlin that he escaped in the nick of time, right under new chancellor Adolf Hitler's nose (this is mentioned in the Atomic song, A Little Fire). His sensing and foretelling the imminent danger - this time for Jews, dissidents, etc. - became a theme in his life.  There's a line that occurs twice from my character, Trude Weiss, "you have an annoying habit of being right" that highlights that ability.  If anything, he certainly had a true scientist's sense of hypothesis, not only for predicting nuclear chain reactions, but politics as well.  He was also able to convince many of his loved ones to escape before the war. Once in the US and working on the Manhattan Project, he moved about the United States for years, sometimes living with Trude, sometimes on his own.  It was something of a nomadic lifestyle, which some might say was not unknown to Jews for centuries. When the Hebrews left Egypt, they were also said to wander for forty years.  Indeed, there are allusions to Moses in Atomic that work both culturally and scientifically.  There was no map in either case, literal or figurative.

I'm guessing they were decidedly not dressed for the Renaissance, though.

Last week, we had the honor of hearing nuclear science history expert - and award-winning teacher - Kathleen Dwyer (set and lighting designer Rob Lippert's wife) share her fascinating knowledge of and passion for atomic physics.  One of the questions director Scott Miller asked was why the Germans had not come up with the bomb themselves.  Her response - and I'm paraphrasing - was something to effect of, "well, they got rid of all the people capable of doing it" - in other words, hoisted on their own petard of persecution.

If you don't mind being thoroughly disgusted, search keywords "Jewish," "scientists," and "Manhattan Project."  I did so innocently (while writing the last blog), and was shocked to see hateful, paranoid garbage from white supremacist group Stormfront pop up among the results.  Not having clicked on it, I could only assume it was being used as some sort of scare-tactic smear akin to The Eternal Jew, one of the nastiest pieces of antisemitic propaganda ever conceived, painting Jews as dangerous and destructive, which is nothing if not ironic.  I was merely searching on the idea that Kathleen hit on - several of the prominent scientists that gave birth to atomic physics were indeed Jewish: Einstein, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, among others.  Indeed, Germany's loss was the allies''s especially stomach-turning that those who would carry the Nazi's hateful legacy would twist that contribution in such a way. 

In the musical, Trude pointedly and defiantly tries to make time to have shabbos in the states, insisting that they can't take it for granted, having seen the effects of growing antisemitism in Europe.  What horror must have been theirs, however - the whole world's, really - upon discovering what the endgame was to rounding up their friends and families back home: an attempt at utterly wiping out a culture from the face of the earth.  In another touching scene in Atomic, Leo and Trude collapse in disbelief at the news, struggling to grasp that the world they knew is gone, and realizing they cannot go home; there's nothing and no one to go home to.  "How can somewhere that's home when you're in it/feel so empty and cold the next minute?" and "How could we know?"  are among the questions they ask.  There are no answers.  The Holocaust stands out in history as grim and horrific proof that humans can, and will, do unspeakable things to whole entire populations of people in the name of fear and hatred disguised as nationalism.  May we never forget that.

Four glasses of wine at least?  Let's do this.

Tonight is Passover, and I have the honor of celebrating at a seder given by my boyfriend's family.  As I might have mentioned in previous blogs, I was born and raised Baptist, so seder isn't something I was brought up with, but I'd like to think I'm doing okay.  Heck, I even eat the gefilte fish!  That's big for a gentile. Still, more than just the food, I enjoy hearing the story and the tradition that's thousands of years old.   A colleague of my mother's while she taught French and Spanish at Ladue High School, one of the "tribe" himself, once explained to her that all Jewish holidays seem to follow a pattern: "they tried to kill us, but we're still here...let's eat."  Passover in a post-Holocaust world reminds us that while many - like Szilard and Weiss - were delivered from harm and obliged to wander, that so many others had their homes, their possessions, their legacies, their very lives erased.  So today, we can still celebrate the fact that great minds like Szilard's survived to make their mark. Chag Sameach (Happy holiday)!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Take a breath, close your eyes: starting "Atomic"

We began Atomic rehearsals last night. Whenever I begin a new project, I can never shake the nerves for the first few rehearsals. I've sung for New Line before, but only in the ensemble - which was unforgettable and amazing - for Jerry Springer: The Opera  and Bonnie and Clyde, but now I find myself in a larger and more complex role.  In the next few weeks, it's my job to give voice to a real person, one who gave voice to her husband and partner as well.

Trude with Leo (University of California San Diego)
That's a big honor for any actor, for certain.  Gertrud Weiss Szilard was a physician and researcher, a person who understood and respected science, and along with her partner, was genuinely trying to wrap her mind around the enormous implications - both extraordinary and very, very dangerous - of atomic physics. In the musical, she's often depicted as an educated twist on the neglected and even nagging wife, but she's also a support, part of Leo Szilard's conscience, and what in Yiddish is known as a noodge. (By the way, isn't Yiddish amazing)?

Speaking of all things Jewish, I'll be blogging more later about the singular experience of Jewish expatriates (especially scientists) later on in the rehearsal process, and about Trude's Jewish identity during and in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.  Jewish culture is touched on more than a few times in this musical - most obviously their horror at what was happening back home.

Atomic physics cannot have had a greater impact on our 20th and 21st century imagination and politics.  I think it's important to remember that at the heart of this incredible realization that we could bring about the end of civilization in just a few moments were real human souls, ones that we should celebrate and have gratitude for.  More than just a scientific visionary, Szilard was gifted with a real humanity that saw the political and moral ramifications of unleashing their discovery on the world.  He was also an incredibly brave man.  For her part, Trude honored that bravery.  I'm eager to get into that and explore with this phenomenal cast and crew.  Let's sing about science!