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DNA and a Woman Scorned

Mon, 05/22/2023 - 16:22
Anthony Chatmon II is Maurice Wilkins, a lesser-known discoverer of the structure of DNA, and Samantha Massell portrays Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix."
Courtesy of Bay Street Theater

"Double Helix," a musical by Madeline Myers about the race to discover the structure of DNA in the 1950s, will have its world premiere on June 3 at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, five years after Scott Schwartz, the theater's artistic director, first met Ms. Meyers in London when he was directing "The Prince of Egypt" on the West End.

"Madeline was working on another show there," he said during a recent press briefing. He asked the composer-lyricist to send him some material and when they met again in New York, "She asked if I'd ever heard of Rosalind Franklin. I told her I had not." 

And so began the play's journey to Sag Harbor.

Franklin was a British chemist and a skilled X-ray crystallographer who, using that technology, took a photograph, known as Photograph 51, that revealed the structure of DNA, the carrier of genetic information, to be a double helix. This crucially important contribution to that discovery went mostly unrecognized, however, during her life. "Double Helix" tells her story in the context of the race to discover DNA and the challenges confronted by women in science.

Franklin, who was viewed by many of her male contemporaries as "difficult," also faced antisemitism. "So, trying to explore who this person was, in all of her glory and all of her complexity, was what Madeline wanted to do," said Mr. Schwartz. "I said, that's it, that's our musical. Five years later, here we are."

The play not only stars Samantha Massell in the title role, it was written for her. She was last seen on Broadway as Hodel in the revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" and has had recurring roles in "Dynasty," "Chicago Fire," and "Mr. Mercedes." Mr. Schwartz previously directed her in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.

"The show is a page-turner," he said. "It’s about a race, it’s about people all in competition trying to achieve the same thing, and how they support each other, and how they undercut each other, and how they battle with each other. It’s actually really exciting."

It also deals with Franklin's personal life. She was in love with Jacques Mering, a married X-ray crystallographer who had trained her when in the late '40s when they worked together in Paris. When he made advances, according to Brenda Maddox's book "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA," "she allowed herself to be tempted farther than was usual for her, but eventually, incapable of a casual liaison, drew back."

"One of the things I love about the show is you think it's all about science, and it's going to be stuffy, but it's not, it's about people in their 20s and 30s who were all at the top of their game and thought they could change the world," said Mr. Schwartz. "You don't have to know anything about DNA, you don’t have to care about science particularly, the emotional story is what drives it."

While there are dialogue scenes, much of the content is carried by the music, which Mr. Schwartz described as "modern, very melodic. There are things you'll come out humming." Theatergoers can also expect that projections, designed by Andrew Lazarow of the Rockwell Group, will be used, not just as imagery but also as beams of light over the audience, creating an immersive experience.

In addition to Ms. Massell, the cast includes Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins; Matthew Christian as Jacques Mering; Max Chulmecky as James Watson; Anthony Joseph Costello as Raymond Gosling; Amy Justman as Adrienne Weill; Austin Ku as Francis Crick; Thom Sesma as John Randall; Tuck Sweeney as William Bates, and Kate Fitzgerald and Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan as swings.

Previews will run from Tuesday, which is pay-what-you-can night, through Friday, June 2. Opening night is June 3. Showtimes are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8, with 2 p.m. matinees on June 7, June 11, June 14, June 17, and June 18.

Birbiglia Is Back
After the success of his six-show run at Bay Street last summer, Mike Birbiglia will bring new jokes and stories to Bay Street for one night only, July 29. Mr. Birbiglia has just finished a sold-out 85-performance run of his new show, "The Old Man and the Pool," at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.

Tickets are now available and selling quickly. 

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