Entertainment

How “Atomic” creators built a musical about nuclear physicists

Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman, creators of the rock musical "Atomic," visited St. Louis to see their show produced by New Line Theatre.
Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman, creators of the rock musical "Atomic," visited St. Louis to see their show produced by New Line Theatre.

A musical about nuclear physicists? Creators Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman hear the surprise in people’s voices all the time.

Then, people understand after seeing “Atomic,” which primarily takes place during the Manhattan Project.

With an emotional rock score and a fascinating untold story at its core, the Australian composers blast misconceptions and spark thought-provoking conversations because they present the moral dilemmas.

Ginges, the book author and lyricist, and Foxman, composer and lyricist, explained the musical’s origins and their process during an afternoon lunch in Grand Center. The pair hopes the story’s personal relationships, scientific progress and ethics issues will resonate with an audience.

“People have pre-conceived ideas based on what they’ve been taught,” said Foxman. “(‘Atomic’) makes people think. It’s not just about history, but about the people.”

“(Hungarian scientist Leo) Szilard was the first to use radiation for a cancer cure, and that’s a very important point,” said Ginges. “It’s important for the audience to relate. We wanted more of the human story.

“The songs reflect the emotions. The story has big emotions, and we wanted that to be carried through.”

Director Scott Miller said he read about the show in Playbill in 2014, during its off-Broadway run. He scheduled the re-worked show into New Line Theatre’s 25th anniversary season.

The intimate staging by Miller and co-director Mike Dowdy is in a black box theater setting, and features a strong, committed cast. The show has received rave reviews for its regional premiere, including kudos from the creators.

“It showed us it can be performed anywhere,” Foxman said, noting how well the smaller space worked. Previous productions had been staged in larger venues.

“Atomic” debuted in Australia in 2013, opened in New York in 2014, then after a revision, made its U.S. regional theater premiere in Detroit in March. The St. Louis production is only its fourth.

“The idea came first. I was curious about the Manhattan Project and fearful of nuclear war,” said Ginges, an advertising copywriter.

“In my research, I read ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’ by Richard Rhodes, and learned about (scientist) Leo Szilard. It was disturbing that he had been ignored. His story, nobody knew. Obviously, the government controlled the way the story was told with an official narrative.

“My background was advertising, not musical theater. It took a while to get there. I was very naïve,” he said, smiling. “I first wrote it as a film.”

After a disappointing time in Los Angeles, Ginges shelved the project, but returned to it.

“As I was writing it, music was playing in my head — Led Zeppelin music. I thought maybe it would work as a musical,” he said.

One thing led to another, and a friend organized a reading. The response was encouraging.

Ginges said he learned an important lesson early on — “surround yourself with good people.”

He met Foxman, who also lived in Sydney, through a mutual friend.

“I asked around. He brought a fresh perspective, different ideas,” Ginges said.

Foxman had an extensive background in rock music. He had toured in bands, and composed film scores and TV themes. In 1976, he was in Supernaut, a glam-punk rock band that rode the charts for three years and had a number one record. In 1984, he joined Illustrated Man, which had a Top 20 MTV dance hit, “Head Over Heels.”

“I saw a band play when I was 13, and the magic captivated me. I have never let it go,” he said.

The pair traveled from Australia to St. Louis for opening night, stopping in New York first to see “Hamilton,” another musical about a neglected historical figure.

The comparisons about a brave new world in America did not go unnoticed for two Jewish men whose parents were affected by the Holocaust.

Ginges said his mother was a baby when her family left everything behind in Hungary in 1938.

Foxman’s parents were living in Poland when the Russian Army liberated their town, and they were put into service at a Russian work camp. His mother became a nurse and was decorated for her work. His parents moved to Australia in 1949.

“It had a real effect on me as a child,’ Foxman said.

Szilard’s story is not known to most Americans, but should be. A Jew who wanted to beat Hitler to the atom bomb, Leo and his future wife Trude Weiss came to America in 1939.

“Leo was smart enough to know that things were turning, and they had to get out of there,” Ginges said.

He joined the secret, government-funded Manhattan Project, with fellow top scientists Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Leona Woods, J. Robert Oppenheimer and leader Arthur Compton. When the U.S. entered the war, the race was on to finish their work.

After V-E Day, Szilard opposed dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, but his petition drive was ignored. Then he was cut out of the history books.

The present show is a revised work based on off-Broadway feedback that sent them back to the drawing board.

“In New York, we were in the belly of the beast. We talked to the audience. We went back home, and weren’t happy with it,” Ginges said.

“It was obvious it needed to be fixed. We wrote new songs and brought back original songs that were cut in workshop,” Foxman said. “It has been three years of our lives, and we’re still passionate about it.”

They spent the better part of last year rewriting it. “We finally got the right combination of story and song and reprise,” Ginges said.

The Detroit premiere was gratifying, because they received 29 standing ovations in a 500-seat theater.

“I never set out to write a musical. I wanted to tell a story. The story dictated how we wanted to tell it,” Ginges said. “We dived into the deep end. We wanted this to stand the test of time.”

With current world news, the men realize that nuclear missiles are not just a past concern.

“It will always be relevant. It is such a powerful story,” Foxman said.

“This musical is not your typical structure,” Ginges said, noting that they’ve learned that a new idea can bring a freshness to a genre.

They definitely want to collaborate on something again.

“We’ve been looking at different ideas and topics, and discussing what we could work on next,” Foxman said.

“Atomic”

  • Who: New Line Theatre
  • When: 8 p.m. June 23, 24 and 25
  • Where: Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Sam Shepard Drive, St. Louis 63103
  • Tickets: MetroTix: 314-534-1111 or www.newlinetheatre.com
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