Rosalind Franklin’s Role in DNA Discovery, Once Ignored, Is Told Anew in Song

During the summer of 2020, the composer and lyricist Madeline Myers spent hours at the piano in her Manhattan apartment as she struggled to write three songs for her new musical, “Double Helix,” about the British chemist Rosalind Franklin. The challenge wasn’t strictly about marrying words to a score, but conveying the science of a crucial moment in the discovery of DNA’s structure — and making the songs entertaining.

Franklin’s experiments, in which she successfully used X-ray crystallography to create images of DNA, became the basis for James Watson and Francis Crick’s groundbreaking 1953 discovery of the double helix structure. The breakthrough underpins our modern understanding of genetics and biology, but for years Franklin received none of the credit. (She died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 37; her male colleagues were later awarded the Nobel Prize.)

Fast forward to a recent afternoon, when Myers and the show’s director, Scott Schwartz, were in a rehearsal room high above 42nd Street facing a new hurdle: how to stage those science-focused songs, including one number fittingly called “The Problem.” In this scene, six actors are in a lab using an X-ray crystallography machine to try to capture an image of DNA. As they turned their focus from a makeshift cardboard contraption to a screen positioned upstage, Schwartz called out: “We’re suspending reality in making the photograph immediately show up on the projection screen.”

They were just weeks away from the first previews of “Double Helix,” which begin May 30 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y. And though a certain level of make-believe is intrinsic to theater, getting this illusion right was especially tricky: Myers and Schwartz are trying to balance history and science with an emotional and multidimensional portrait of Franklin, who attacked her work with zealous dedication while being subjected to misogyny and antisemitism.

While Myers knew “the play should not be about science,” she was committed to science being “the vehicle for this story.” That was Franklin’s worldview, after all. “There were dramatic liberties I could take with the history, but I just felt like I could not fudge the science.”

Yet she also needed “the science to be simple because what we’re trying to show is the emotional conflict,” she added, “and all the power dynamics and the gender dynamics.”

The production team also enlisted a few advisers, including Sonya Hanson, a research scientist at the Center for Computational Biology, to provide feedback on the script and the staging.

“They’re doing a lot of work really incorporating the lab environment into the set,” Hanson said. Which is important, she explained, because “Rosalind was an amazing experimentalist” and any portrait of her life should make that clear.

Although Franklin (portrayed onstage by Samantha Massell, who played Hodel in the 2015 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) was involved in the race to discover the structure of DNA, she was the only scientist not to write her own version of the story. “All of these accounts of what happened are certainly filtered through the biases that these people had,” Myers said. “And the only voice that we really just don’t hear from is Rosalind’s.”

Myers began reading about the scientist in 2018, and felt an immediate kinship. “We’re both women. We’re both Jews. We’re both about the same age,” she said. But the biggest connection “was the way she felt about her work as a scientist was how I felt about my own work as a musical dramatist.”

This isn’t Myers’s first experience with bringing history to the stage. She was an original member of the “Hamilton” music department, and witnessed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s approach to creating an “arresting and moving” show about a historical figure, Myers explained. So when she started writing “Double Helix,” she wanted to ensure “the emotional stakes were greater than the actual historical stakes.”

A central question: “Is life definable as biological matter or is life what we live and what we experience? And is Rosalind Franklin sacrificing what we live and what we experience in order to find that biological matter?” To heighten the choices that Franklin has to make in the musical, Myers turned what might have been, in real life, just a crush on the scientist, Jacques Mering, into a relationship. Franklin then has to choose whether to prioritize the relationship or her work.

Schwartz, Bay Street Theater’s artistic director, said he was drawn to the project for its potential to fill in the blanks of Franklin’s inner world. “That’s what musicals are for,” he said. To use songs “to crack open the psychology of a character.”

As for Franklin’s scientific snub, Myers isn’t looking for the audience to be “up in arms.” Instead, she wants people to leave the theater thinking: “What are the two strands in my own life that are competing for my time?” she said. “That is what the play is about. It’s about how we use our time not knowing how much of it that we have.”

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