This New Battle For Our Soul

I've blocked a majority of Atomic now, and I'm feeling pretty good about where we're headed. Staging this show is a real balancing act between earnestness and irony, and between rock drama and concept musical. But I think I've got the hang of it.

Even in the moments that feel more naturalistic, our writers have paced this story like a thriller, and the energy from that pacing and from the rock music is what makes the show such an intense ride. When I talk to my friends about the show, they're always surprised when I tell them that in our story, we drop the bomb not at the end of the show, but at the end of Act I.

That's only the first half of the story Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman are telling. And splitting the acts where they do is part of their storytelling – if our audiences think the moral questions in Act I are complex, wait till we get to Act II.

Like any well-structured two-act show, Ginges and Foxman build to a climax at the Act I finale, let us have the intermission to process everything, then we come back for Act II, and they complicate the story in unexpected ways. I don't know how conscious all this was for the writers, but it's a brilliant way of keeping the audience off balance. They think they're seeing the story of the dropping of the atom bomb, but that's not exactly the story we're telling. We're telling a Science-Run-Amok, Frankenstein story.

(Interestingly, the Science-Run-Amok genre of movies, like The Fly and Tarantula! was born directly from the fear of the atomic bomb.)

And in a Frankenstein echo, both the style of the show and the style of the music are intentionally schizoid, delivering us both the raw drama of the history and physics, but also the raw human emotion of the psychic and moral toll this work took on its creators.

In concrete terms, I have to be careful about keeping these two styles in balance and following the blueprint that Ginges laid out for us.

We have a good-sized playing area for this show, with a long, narrow table down the middle, and a bar at one end. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the audience will be on two opposite sides of the stage, facing each other.

The table obviously limits what I can do with staging. But it's the kind of limitation that breeds creativity. When we did Rent, I asked Rob for a giant round platform center-stage, painted like the moon, raked, and large enough to seat our cast of sixteen around it. Talk about limitations. But ultimately, that moon platform divided the stage up into great, small playing spaces, and it provided an abstract space itself that allowed us to step out of the physical world and go inside. I found several ways to use that moon. I realized later that I had unconsciously used it as a place of isolation several times in the show. You can't be more alone than being on the moon...

Our big table for Atomic is similar, but less abstract, so less versatile. Most of the time, our table is a table, though often it's a table in Leo and Trude's apartment at one end, while it's a table in the lab at the other end. It really works to have two scenes onstage at the same time (which Ginges does a lot), sort of sharing space but not really. It's a split-screen, and it shows so clearly these simultaneous events.

I learned from watching bootleg videos of Dreamgirls and Nine and Grand Hotel how to use cinematic techniques (split-screen, close-up, focus pull, pan, over-the-shoulder, etc.) in staging theatre, particularly in musicals where staging can often be more abstract and more expressionistic. These devices all work so well because audiences are already used to them. And this script is written for those techniques.

One of the devices I want to use – but I have to be careful with it – is to make the table into a stage itself. One place I know I'll use it is late in the show, in the song "Only Numbers," when there are three characters onstage, one of which is in a plane. To help the audience understand, I think we're going to place a chair on the table and have our pilot sit up there. I think separating him from the other two actors vertically will help make this triple split-screen scene work.

It will isolate all three of them, which is key to their emotions here.

"Only Numbers" is a powerful song and a pivotal point in the drama. The pilot reminds himself not to think of those people down there as people as he drops the bomb, just The Enemy, just numbers. It's the only way his mind can survive this. Trude, meanwhile, grapples with the scale of the Holocaust, too massive, too inhuman to makes sense of it, and with her detachment from the horror (and resulting guilt) here in America. Leo, on the other hand, is unable to detach. He's too much implicated in all this. His part of this song decries the dehumanizing Other-ing of war.

At one particularly potent moment in this song, all three sing, "The day that we don't fight is the day that we die." It's a powerful line, because it means something different to each of the three characters onstage, in three different places, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. It's a smart, economical way to draw the thematic threads of the story together as we head toward the finale.

There's one other moment, early in Act II, in which Leo delivers a really impassioned soliloquy-song, "Greater Battle," in which Leo (our story's moral center) realizes he now has to fight an even bigger fight than creating the bomb; now he has to stop it. The song is built as a lengthy soliloquy, constantly interrupted by quick dialogue scenes. What's cool about the scene is that Leo tells us what he's thinking and feeling when he sings, and then we see him taking concrete action, based on those feelings, in the bits of dialogue. It's a great way to employ the still useful aspects of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, without being trapped by its more dated habits.

I think what I'm gonna do with that scene is put Leo up on the table, and keep all those quick spoken scenes on the stage, to keep Leo separate from the world around him. And also, to let him have a "rock star" moment for this rock anthem. But also in that song, the ensemble sings with him in the second half of the song. I've thought a lot about how to use "the chorus" (when that's what they are). I finally decided, at least for "Greater Battle," I wasn't going to try and impose some "clever" staging on the actors singing backup. Instead, I'm going to bring them onstage and let them just face the audience and sing. The rest of the cast aren't really "in" the scene; they really are just voices.

Yes, I think there's an argument to be made that having the whole cast sing this song does suggest dramatically that Leo isn't the only one who fears the further development and use of the bomb. But that's not really what we're doing onstage at that moment. The fact of the cast onstage is more a musical moment than a dramatic moment, and rather than try to bullshit the audience, we're going to let the actors just be music. No clever staging. Leo is the one and only focus here.

And even though I feel pretty good about these choices, I did tell Zak, who plays Leo, that if it feels really stupid being up on the table, we'll find a different choice...

At the beginning of the show, I have the whole cast standing on chairs at one moment, just expressionistic staging to ramp up the intensity a bit more. But once I did that, I realized I was creating a "rule" for our show that we were going to use this furniture as more than just furniture. That means I need to find at least a few other places in the show to do the same. I firmly believe that if we're going to break rules, that needs to be part of the vocabulary of our story, not just a whim.

It always bothers me when I see theatre in which an actor comes out in the house for some reason, early in the show, but then never again. The show sets up the expectation in the audience that the house is part of the playing space. But then it isn't. Theatre should never double-cross its audience.

Unless you're doing Brecht or Sondheim.

I believe in Sondheim's Ten-Minute Rule, that you can use any devices, any rules, as long as you set them up for the audience within the first ten minutes of the show, or preferably, within the first song. But directors have to do that as well as writers. I need to introduce the audience to our storytelling rules just as much as we have to introduce them to the characters and the plot.

Right now, I have actors up on the furniture three times. That may be enough. But I still have about two-thirds of Act II to block, so if I find one or two more places to use that, that would be nice. But only if it really enhances the moment.

The one challenge I see still ahead is keeping the whole story at a really high level of tension and energy, with only occasional moments of calm and respite, even if those moments of calm still hold all that moral complexity and frustration. Actors instinctively want to vary their performances and use all the "colors" at their disposal. But the stakes in this story are stratospheric, and the energy stays pretty high. No one is detached. No one is on the sidelines. Most of these characters are driven. And we understand why.

Leo is the lone voice of reason in 1950s Science-Run-Amok movies, the one guy who's right but nobody will listen to him. He has to save the world, yet the world keeps throwing obstacles in his way.

The key to this drama is that almost all these characters feel these high stakes, and most of them are in opposition to each other. They all think they know how to save the world, and that everyone else is wrong. They all think they should be in charge. This story embodies the metaphor of the unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. And the atom bomb is an apt metaphor for the explosions of emotion and anger among these characters. The bosses remove and add scientists to the project like they're experimenting with protons and neutrons, making the team and the project forever unstable, forever ready to explode.

I've seen some reviews and comments about Atomic that complain about how much the show "explains," but I think those critics miss the point. First of all, almost the entire story is an ongoing moral debate, so yes, these characters are going to explain things as they make their arguments. But also, in the second-to-last scene, including the song "What I Tell Myself," that explaining is motivated and dramatically legit. When people go through a trauma, talking about it, telling its story, is part of the healing process, part of making peace with the trauma. That's what's happening in this penultimate scene, but on a larger, more consequential scale than any of us ever encounter in our own lives.

No matter how you slice it, it's not hard to argue that these scientists killed millions of innocent people. That's a hell of a trauma to get past...

With this show, we have to keep the reality of this world and these events as palpable as possible for the audience, the stakes and tensions as high as possible, and the emotions as potent as possible. We have the tools to make all that happen. I'm more than halfway through the hardest part of my job – physically staging the show – and I'm feeling really good about everything. But we have lots of work still to do before opening night.

This is such great material...!

Long Live the Musical!