Though these three characters, Leo, Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets, all sing the title phrase "only numbers" (usually together), it means something very different for each of them – and so the song itself means very different things for these three. And the lyric does a really good job of making that complexity clear.
Usually people singing together in a musical means they are connected in some way. If they sing in harmony, we hear that they belong together, whether they are a community, a family, or a couple of lovers. If they sing in unison, we know they are one.
But this is something else.
In "Only Numbers," Tibbets is in his plane, on his way to Hiroshima, while Leo and Trude are each in their own very personal, abstract space. The music to their verses constantly shifts back and forth between major and minor, embodying the moral and emotional chaos in these characters. Tibbets sings first, with a kind of desperate strength, trying hard to convince himself:
Those people down below, just numbers;
Nobody that I know, just numbers.
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war,
Then I'm giving it my all.
His verse is about consciously shutting down his empathy, shutting down his humanity, so that he can accomplish his mission without completely falling apart. His only salvation is in thinking of the people he's bombing only as numbers, "casualties," not humans, not men, women, and children. He has been trained to put on this mental armor, to shut down doubt and moral questions. He assures himself that he's only following orders... which takes on some chilling historical resonance...
But a close look at the music shows even more craft and complexity than is immediately obvious. For instance, in that first verse by Tibbets, the music is minor under "Those people down below," but it turns major for "just numbers." Then back to minor again... Within a single line of music, composer Philip Foxman has painted for us a clear picture of Tibbets' emotional ambivalence. And the whole song works on this level.
Further into Tibbets' verse, the music turns first major for "It wasn't me who made the..." then minor for the word, "call." In other words, "It wasn't me" is a good thought (major), but "the call," the decision to drop this bomb, is a bad thought (minor). Tibbets will not accept responsibility for this horror, though the guilt may be inescapable. And then the music turns major again for "But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all." Patriotism is Major. This music is so carefully built, that even though Tibbets' words obscure his emotions, the music still tells us the truth.
Then we hear from Trude, as she grapples with the scale of the Holocaust:
Count the dead in the road toll, just numbers;
Same as last year maybe more, just numbers.
It's one thing when a number's in the news;
Another when he's everything to you.
How does she deal with it? She sees the numbers in the newspaper, but unlike Tibbets, she can't let herself forget the people behind those numbers, her people (she's from Austria) being slaughtered. In Act I, Trude is horrified to read in the paper that "up to two million" Jews had been killed. She has no concept of the real scope of this horror, but even a fraction of the real number is horrifying, almost paralyzing.
Then Leo sings:
The seconds of a life, just numbers;
People always die, just numbers,
We lose so many when we fight;
Will one more number set things right?
In 1949, after the war, Szilard wrote a fictional piece for the University of Chicago Law Review, titled, "My Trial as a War Criminal," in which he imagines himself being convicted of war crimes for his work on the bomb.
But like Trude, he's also overwhelmed at the scale of it all. How could he think he could make a difference...? If everyone is just a number, then so apparently is he. And a number can't set things right.
All three sing the bridge together, but still in their three separate mindsets and spaces:
When you know what it is
You have to do,
Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Try and see it through.
Talk all you want;
Here at the end,
When it's life or death,
You or them,
Someone's got to lose.
Read that again. "Here at the end, when it's life or death, you or them, someone's got to lose." Damn. But that's the nature of war, right? Unless you want to argue for no war ever, this is the reality of it. Leo thinks it's immoral to drop the bomb? Well, war is immoral. Someone's got to lose...
But also, during this bridge section, the alternating between major and minor speeds up. Now the first two lines of each stanza are both minor and major within the same measure, then minor again for the next two lines, then back to major for the last line. But here, the connection between happy thoughts and major chords breaks down in moral gray area. The complexity of their cage leads us to a major chord under "Someone's got to lose."
We'll win. Patriotism is Major. And morality is up-ended.
The three of them keep singing the phrase "only numbers," as they each get solo lines in between...
It's time to choose.
They’re only numbers…
Play or lose.
We've got to try.
The day we don't fight is the day that we die.
Another really powerful moment in this song, though these three people are fighting three different things. Tibbets is fighting both the Japanese and his own humanity. Trude is fighting her feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Leo is fighting to end the war – or is he just fighting not to recognize that he is utterly powerless?
In fact, all three of these people are essentially powerless at this point.
Trude sings by herself for a moment, in a short, second bridge:
When the number has a name,
And the number has a face,
When the number is your life,
And it cannot be replaced...
Very sobering stuff indeed.
When you've done all
You can do…
And said all you can say…
Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Blow a million dreams away…
And as they sing those last words, the music transitions to music we've heard before, music that earlier in the show accompanied the lyric, "Dreams can make you; love can break you." It's almost as if the instrumental music is replying to the last line of the lyric. But here, as it invokes that earlier lyric, maybe it's also a hint at the pain that these characters' human empathy has caused them. Love for their fellow humans is indeed "breaking" them...
It's also interesting that this song doesn't really end. It segues into underscoring. There's no release through applause for the audience, because our writers are building palpable tension from here to the end of the show. Denying an audience their release keeps them in tension...
This is real lyric-writing craft. The lyrics in Atomic are rarely poetic or expressionistic; that's not this show. These lyrics are mostly written in very ordinary, concrete language; it's the ideas that take precedence here, not aesthetic beauty. This is not a story about beauty. These people don't have time for metaphors.
Emotion is what musicals do best, because musicals have the abstract but very powerful language of music, which can convey emotion far better than the concrete language of words. (Which is why West Side Story works better than Romeo & Juliet.) "Only Numbers" is the proof of that. Reading the lyric on the page only hints at the power this song has in performance, particularly once we're this deep into this story and these moral questions...
Now that the show is staged and we move into the theatre on Monday, this is the kind of richness we'll explore for the next couple weeks. We get nine full run-throughs before an audience joins us, three of those run-throughs with the band and full tech.
So much still to explore here...
Long Live the Musical!