‘Double Helix’ at Bay Street Is a Musical Gift to Unsung Godmother of DNA

The cast of Bay Street's "Double Helix" with playwright Madeline Myers (far right) and director Scott Schwartz (far left)
The cast of Bay Street’s “Double Helix” with playwright Madeline Myers (far right) and director Scott Schwartz (far left)

Bay Street Theater’s Mainstage season begins on Tuesday, May 30 with previews for world-premiere musical Double Helix, written and composed by Madeline Myers, with opening night set for Saturday, June 3. Running through June 18, the show sings the riveting history of unsung godmother of DNA Rosalind Franklin.

Several years ago, Myers explains, a friend’s probing question would serve as the catalyst for Double Helix: Do you know anything about the discovery of the structure of DNA? “I didn’t, and he went on to tell me it was this explosive, thrilling, gripping, really dramatic race to discover the structure of DNA. The hair stood up; my heart stopped beating. I just thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard in my whole life, and I wanted to know everything about it.”

Myers was surprised to learn that at the center of discovery there was a young Jewish woman named Rosalind Franklin, whose work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA would lead to the discovery of the DNA double helix in 1952. However, her contribution went uncredited for decades, and when the Nobel Prize for the discovery was awarded, she wasn’t one of the three men to receive it.

“I saw myself in her and in her story in a lot of ways; I felt really connected to her,” Myers says. “We’re both women, and we’re both Jews, and the passion that I feel for my work as a musical dramatist is really the same kind of passion that I think Rosalind Franklin felt for her work as a scientist.”

In researching Franklin, Myers discovered a complex individual passionate about science, yes, but hiking, fashion, cooking and human connection, too. She wanted to have it all. Her story is so relatable, gripping and “deeply human” that Myers just knew, “It had to be sung.”

She elaborates, “When I look at all the challenges that she went through, those are the same sorts of things I feel in my own life and the choices that women uniquely have to make as they navigate their careers and all of the other things. When I started to see the ‘double helix’ of Rosalind Franklin’s life and the two strands that are competing for her time (her heart and her mind), that’s when I knew it was a musical. It had so much music already there in the story because it was so emotional.”

The Double Helix book is roughly three quarters sung and a quarter spoken, and Myers describes the music as “chromatic, harmonic, melodic and really sweeping and lush,” adding “I’m so proud of the score.”

Bringing the score to life is the talented cast comprising Samantha Massell as Rosalind Franklin with Anthony Chatmon II, Matthew Christian, Max Chulmecky, Anthony Joseph Costello, Amy Justman, Austin Ku, Thom Sesma, Tuck Sweeney, and Kate Fitzgerald and Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan as swings. The impressive creative team includes Patrick Sulken, Addy Chan, Scott Wasserman, Alexander Dodge, Mike Billings, Ashley Soliman, Jon Weston, Andrew Lazarow, Sara Plata and Kat West.

To those who are concerned that lines like “X-ray diffraction images of DNA” warn of a musical full of science jargon, Myers promises, “Science is the vehicle for this story, but it’s not a show about science.”

Bay Street Artist Director Scott Schwartz, who is directing Double Helix, points out that the science element was one of the key points addressed in the audience feedback after the reading of the script at the 2022 Title Wave: New Works Festival.

“The New Works Festival was very helpful in that in certain places the audience wanted more information about the scientific details, and how they did things. And in certain places they wanted less. That’s something we definitely have continued to develop,” Schwartz says. “That’s just one example. There were other questions raised about characters, about moments, about relationships, and those were very inspiring to the writer and to me.”

“Audience feedback is always the most valuable data. Musicals are not written to be read as text on the page. They’re written to be lived on their feet in front of other people who are experiencing them in real time,” Myers says. “I very distinctly remember learning from the reading how much people responded to Rosalind’s Jewish identity. And now her discovery of what her Judaism means to her feels like it has become a part of the story in a much more full-circle way. I’m really proud that it has taken a more prominent place in the story.”

Franklin’s relationship with a lab partner in Paris also plays a major part in the story, driving the rift between her heart’s desires and her mind’s ambitions. “The fullest expression of my own feminism is being able to do all the things that I want in my life — being able to have a partner, or have a career, or have a family, all of those different things,” Myers explains. “So often women have to make a choice between or among those things, so it was really important to me to render Rosalind Franklin as honestly and truthfully and fully of a woman as I could.”

Myers is eager to share her world-premiere musical with the Bay Street Theater audience and has high aspirations for the show’s continued success. “I hope people will one day be able to say, ‘We saw the first production of this musical that went on to have a commercial production on Broadway.’ That is certainly the hope,” she says.

Schwartz confirms that former New Works Festival plays have gone on to London’s West End and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, so Broadway isn’t out of the realm of possibility. “You never know,” he adds.

To purchase a Mainstage subscription or tickets, call the box office at 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.