Scott Schwartz, director of "Double Helix," during rehearsals with the show's playwright and composer, Madeline Myers. COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Samantha Massell, who plays scientist Rosalind Franklin, during rehearsals of "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
"Double Helix" scenic designer Alexander Dodge. COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Samantha Massell as scientist Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
From left, "Double Helix" music director Patrick Sulken, actress Samantha Massell who plays Rosalind Franklin, director Scott Schwartz and playwright and composer Madeline Myers. EMILY ASSIRAN
Amy Justman plays Adrienne Weill in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Anthony Chatmon II plays Maurice Wilkins in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Anthony Joseph Costello plays Raymond Gosling in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Austin Ku plays Francis Crick in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan plays swing roles in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Kate Fitzgerald plays swing roles in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Max Chulmecky plays James Watson in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Samantha Massell plays Rosalind Franklin in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Thom Sesma plays John Randall in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
Tuck Sweeney plays William Bates in "Double Helix." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER
As a scientist, Rosalind Franklin was driven from an early age to pursue a career in scientific research at a time when women were not exactly welcomed to the field. Still, she persisted, and her ground-breaking work very nearly won her a Nobel Prize in 1962 for helping to discover the structure of DNA.
In the end, that award would go to a team of her male colleagues at King’s College in London.
The story of Franklin’s experience, the race to crack the code of DNA and the heated competition to win the Nobel for it is the subject of the new musical “Double Helix,” by composer and playwright Madeline Myers, which will have its world premiere during a three-week run at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater beginning in late May.
Bay Street’s own artistic director, Scott Schwartz, is directing the show and thinks it is a perfect fit for the East End audience.
“Of course I’m biased, but I think it’s pretty extraordinary. We have an amazing score, amazing songs and we have a writer in [Myers] who I believe is one of the most exciting new voices in the American theater,” he said. “Our audiences are going to have the opportunity to see something I think is really going to take off on a grand scale.”
Schwartz and the cast are in rehearsals now and the show will begin with previews at Bay Street starting May 30. “Double Helix” officially opens on Saturday, June 3, and will run through Sunday, June 18. The production kicks off Bay Street’s 2023 Mainstage Season.
Myers, primarily a composer and lyricist up to this point, wrote the book and music for “Double Helix” and has been working up the project for more than four years. Schwartz said he first met Myers through mutual friends while both were working in Denmark on other projects. He suggested they meet up after returning to the states and finding something to work on together.
“She said, ‘I have this one idea I’m really passionate about, but it’s a really wild idea,’” Schwartz recalled of their 2019 reunion in New York. “Then she asked me if I knew who Rosalind Franklin is.”
British-born Franklin went to King’s College in London in 1950 on a three-year fellowship to work in the biophysics unit. Originally, she was assigned to work on something else, but the head of the unit changed course and asked her to focus on DNA during her research. While Franklin’s work produced increasingly clearer images of the structure of DNA, significant progress, she and colleague Maurice Wilkins, who was also studying DNA, had a falling out that resulted in a fractured relationship.
Meanwhile, two scientists at Cambridge University also studying DNA made use of Franklin’s work to advance their own, but did not credit her when they published their findings that DNA consists of a double helix, in April 1953.
Francis Crick and James Watson, and Wilkins, went on to win the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1962 for their work on the structure of DNA and, according to the National Institutes of Health, “none gave Franklin credit for her contributions at that time.”
The real-life story is full of drama, and so is the musical, Schwartz says.
“It comes across very much like a page turner, the way Madeline wrote it,” the director explained. “Part of the fun of the show, I think, is that you kind of forget that you know how the story ends when you’re watching it because it just feels so real and immediate.”
Samantha Massell, who plays Rosalind Franklin in this production, agreed.
“The race to win the Nobel is so compelling and fast and exciting and the emotions tied up in wanting to win and make this discovery are very moving,” she said during a recent interview.
Massell is set to appear alongside Anthony Chatmon II as Maurice Wilkins, Max Chulmecky as James Watson, Austin Ku as Francis Crick and Thom Sesma as John Randall, the head of the biophysics unit at King’s College, among others.
Chatmon first encountered “Double Helix” when he was asked to participate in a read-through of the play back in 2021.
“The first song I heard, ‘Slow and Steady,’ is one of the most gorgeous contemporary musical songs I’ve ever heard and I said I want to be in whatever show this song belongs to,” Chatmon said. Initially, he was being considered for another character, but Chatmon said the producers came back and asked him to play Wilkins, the character that sings “Slow and Steady.”
“It was extremely lucky,” Chatmon said. “The music is gorgeous.”
The musical is almost entirely sung through, meaning much of the dialogue is sung in addition to the dedicated musical numbers. Chatmon, Massell and Schwartz all commented that the music is complex, but moving — just like the story.
Massell has been with this role since the beginning. She met Myers around eight years ago and struck up a friendship with the composer. When Myers told the actress about the “Double Helix” project, she said she was writing the lead character with Massell in mind.
“She said, ‘It’s you. I’m writing it for you,’ but as actors we often hear things like that so you always have to take it with a grain of sand,” Massell explained. “Well, I guess I can give that grain back now because here I am as Rosalind Franklin.”
Massell and Schwartz said one of the virtues of the musical is that it gives a full picture of the main character, exposing her flaws, vulnerabilities and strengths while exploring her efforts to live a successful professional and personal life.
“It feels very modern, in that sense, even though it takes place in the 1950s,” said Massell.
For anyone concerned the show might be too heavy on the science content, the director promised, “You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this show in the same way you don’t have to be a historian or an expert on the Federalist Papers to enjoy ‘Hamilton.’”
Like Schwartz, Massell suggested she thinks those who come to see “Double Helix” at Bay Street will be experiencing the next big thing in American musical theater.
“From the perspective of an actor who sees new works all the time, this is something special. You’re going to be seeing the beginning of something big,” she said. “I feel very lucky to be a part of it because this is going to be a thing.”
The world premiere of “Double Helix,” the new musical by Madeline Myers, runs Tuesday, May 30, to Sunday, June 18, at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Previews will run May 30 to June 2, with a “Pay What You Can” night on Tuesday, May 30. Opening night is Saturday, June 3, followed by a party. Single seat tickets start at $50. To purchase a Mainstage subscription or tickets, call the box office at 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org. VIP tickets for the opening night reception on June 3, are available by contacting email@example.com.
One fine body…