One Tiny Spark Will Set It All Ablaze

We were all taught in Drama 101 that conflict is the very heart of drama, and I always loved that metaphor. Without conflict, without its heart, drama dies. Drama is life, and life is conflict. Someone once opined to me that they wished the local news would do only good news stories, failing to grasp that everything being Just Fine isn't news. And it's not dramatic.

We're now about two-thirds of the way through blocking the first act of Atomic, so this material is really sinking in now. I realized on the way home from rehearsal tonight that the reason this show and its story are so great is because its fucking loaded with conflict.

But not just that.

What's the most valuable thing a writer can give an actor? What's the thing that makes conflict compelling? High stakes. Can you imagine higher stakes than trying to stop Hitler? Or trying to stop our President from starting a nuclear arms race?

History and our bookwriter Danny Ginges have thrown together a group of brilliant, opinionated minds, at the most intense moment in our national history. Deciding what to have for dinner among these folks would be a challenge, but here we're talking about the highest possible stakes imaginable. We're literally talking about blowing up the world.

It would be silly to think that all these brilliant, accomplished men and women, from so many different cultures, would ever agree on such complex, morally murky questions. One of the fascinating things to watch in the show is how Leo never really finds comfortable alliances with anyone. He's not scientifically pure enough for Fermi, and way too pure for Teller. He's in conflict with his girlfriend Trude in a sad, but recognizable home-vs-work triangle (which brings to mind George and Dot in Sunday in the Park).

And he's at odds with all his bosses, Compton, Groves, and Oppenheimer. He has an ongoing problem with authority, not unlike the doctors in M*A*S*H. In fact the story of Atomic sets up the ultimate odd couple, the marriage of independent scientists (exploration) and the military (control). Right brain vs. left brain. Inherent, high stakes conflict.

Even within songs in this show there is often conflict. Many of the songs in Atomic are really just musical dialogue, a conversation (usually an argument) set to rhyme and music. You can hear the same device in Rent, bareNext to Normal, and Heathers. Only a few of these songs are the usual kind of theatre song, each about one big idea, written in the form of a soliloquy.

And all that means two things for me as a director.

First, I have to be careful not to over-stage the conversation songs. When you give an audience a choice between words and images, they'll usually choose images. So the less movement there is during a song with a complex lyric or lots of plot, the more the audience will focus on the content. And that information will move them forward in the story and keep them engaged.

And yet we're working in an unusual configuration for our stage this time, with the audience on two opposing sides, facing each other. (We did this once before, in 2003, with Sunday in the Park.) But that seating arrangement means I can't have actors standing still very long, because in most places onstage, their back is to a slice of the audience. It's almost in-the-round. So, contrary to my usual staging, I do have to keep things moving. Then again, that works for this show because in some respects, it's a thriller.

I love the idea of Rob's set, to make the American people themselves the backdrop for this story of these scientists making the atomic bomb in our name. It makes everything so much more personal and human. But it requires a delicate balancing act, when so many songs carry so much information...

All this also means that everything about this show – the staging, the songs, everything – depends on the most honest, most in-depth, most fearless acting we can muster. In this story about moral complexity, conflicting duties, and crazy high stakes, the acting is everything. We're lucky to have a cast with great voices to sing the shit out of this rock and roll score, but what's more important, they're all very strong actors. I can't say it enough: The Acting is Everything.

That's usually true of the shows we produce, but lots of shows can survive shallow, clueless productions. I don't think this show could.

I've also realized that this is a very earnest show, with only periodic moments of irony. This isn't our usual kind of show in that respect, but it fits the story and it fits the time. That was not an ironic time in America. Ginges and his writing partner Philip Foxman could have come at this whole story with a hipster-ironic sensibility, creating a companion piece to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but that would trivialize these very serious people grappling with very serious questions during very serious times. literally with the fate of humankind in the balance.

On the other hand, the anachronistic use of emo rock for the score is a really insightful, bold choice. In this very somber, very serious show, the rock allows full voice to the fears and rage and frustration these characters feel. These very visceral emotions and sky-high tensions could not be adequately expressed by period music. This dark, powerful story needs the emotional wallop of rock and roll, and to speak this forcefully to audiences in 2016, it needs this contemporary sound of emo rock.

There is certainly some serious work ahead for us, but our New Line actors love sinking their teeth into meaty, complex characters and stories like this. All we have to do is trust the script and score, and go where they lead us. So far, that's been pretty easy.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!