Splitting the High Notes: New Musical Explores Jewish-American Physicist Behind the Atom Bomb

Hungarian-born Leo Szilard was one of the brains behind the Manhattan Project, who later railed against the plan to use the bomb on civilians. Now his story is playing Off Broadway.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Leó Szilárd (right) with Albert Einstein
Leó Szilárd (right) with Albert Einstein Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

Was it necessary to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to put an end to Japan’s determination to keep fighting on in World War II? This question periodically comes up in ethics classes or articles in the American media.

A new experimental rock musical called “Atomic,” currently being performed Off Broadway at New York’s Acorn Theater, shines a spotlight on one of the less-familiar figures behind the making of the American atomic bomb, Leó Szilárd.

A Hungarian-born, Jewish-American physicist, Szilárd envisioned the nuclear chain reaction that would eventually lead to the building of the atomic bomb. He watched the Nazis rise to power in Germany and feared they would try to develop an atomic bomb, given their access to large quantities of uranium. He and two other Jewish scientists, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, approached Albert Einstein. They told him of their fear that Germany might succeed in building an atomic bomb and asked him to sign a letter that Szilárd wrote, warning President Franklin D. Roosevelt of this danger.

What would come to be known as the Manhattan Project had to overcome numerous obstacles, as Szilárd and his Italian colleague Enrico Fermi regularly encountered hostility from the U.S. military-scientific establishment, which didn’t trust them.

Szilárd hoped that the atomic bomb would be used solely as a deterrent threat. He believed it would be enough for the United States to declare that it possessed such weapons to induce Germany and Japan to surrender.

In time, it became evident that Germany was going to surrender anyway, and that atomic weapons would not have to be used against it. But then Szilárd learned that the United States was planning to use the bomb against a civilian population in Japan, to try to get the Japanese to stop fighting.

He decided to write a letter to President Harry S. Truman, asking him not to do so. He said the Japanese could be deterred if the bombs were dropped in unpopulated areas. The letter never reached Truman and, in the end, the Americans dropped atom bombs on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, causing massive casualties and damage.

After the second bomb was dropped, Japan announced its surrender. Szilárd and Einstein later expressed regret for having contributed to the development of the atomic bomb.

The musical “Atomic,” which was panned by The New York Times, was directed by Damien Gray, with book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman.

Ginges says he decided to highlight Szilárd’s story because of the importance of the issue of limits of using nuclear weapons. He says he chose to do it as a musical because he felt it was the best way to bring this complex subject to a wide audience.

Central story of the modern age

“The story of the atomic bomb is a central story of the modern age,” he says. “Two billion dollars was invested in the project, an enormous sum in those days. Tens of thousands of people worked on the project. Many scientists were involved in the Manhattan Project, but without the role played by Szilárd, it’s doubtful if America would have ever made the bomb.

"Interestingly, Szilárd’s role is not very well known. Nor is the fact that he ultimately came out against the use of the bomb against civilian targets, which is important to understanding his personality. Szilárd was a very opinionated man who didn’t hesitate to make his views known, even if they were unpopular and he had to pay a price for them. He was eventually taken off the Manhattan Project.”

Ginges, an Australian who first put the show on in his native country, says the tale of the atomic bomb, as well as the killing of civilians, which was a matter of routine during World War II, ought to be discussed.

Before it dropped the atomic bomb, the United States bombarded 67 other cities in Japan. Nowadays, it’s harder for a country to kill civilians on a massive scale, since it would cause an international uproar. In Ginges’ view, the positions expressed by Szilárd were highly ethical and are something we can still learn from today.

Hiroshima, Japan, after it was struck with an atomic bomb in 1945. Credit: AP



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