The term “double helix” describes the physical structure of DNA: two linked strands that wind around each other like a twisted ladder. Double Helix is also the title of Madeline Myers’s new musical, playing at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., through June 18th, about British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, a woman instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The double helix image might also be used to describe Myers’s collaboration with the show’s star, Samantha Massell. Massell has been involved with the piece since the show’s conception, and played the lead role of Rosalind since before the first performance workshop, even from the first song Myers wrote for the show. Along with director Scott Schwartz, music director Patrick Sulken, and choreographer Addy Chan, Massell and Myers have brought this unsung woman and her story to life. Recent biographers are reevaluating Franklin’s legacy as an equal contributor to her male counterparts, as it was Franklin’s X-ray image, labeled Photograph 51, that allowed for James Watson and Francis Crick’s famous discovery of the double helix structure 70 years ago. Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962, but Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. (Photograph 51 is also the title of a play by Anna Ziegler on the same subject; it originated in 2010 at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre and later starred Nicole Kidman in a 2015 London production.)
After stumbling onto Franklin’s story, Myers told Massell about the idea for Double Helix in the summer of 2018 and said she envisioned Massell in the main role. “Rosalind had an edge to her, she had a lot of chutzpah, she had a lot of drive, and she also had a steeliness and an elegance to her,” Myers said, as she, Massell, and Schwartz gathered on Zoom during a break from rehearsals last month. Myers knew that Massell and Franklin aligned in those key ways.
The two had met volunteering at New York City’s Musical Theatre Factory around 2014. “I thought Samantha just had this extraordinary instrument that vocally felt so of the musical world that I’m really interested in,” Myers recalled.
The feeling was mutual, as Massell fell in love with Myers’s music and lyrics. “There’s both this extraordinary lushness, like Adam Guettel, and also this cerebral nature, like Sondheim,” she said. “She’s captured the best of everything that I love about musical theatre. Her melodies are really communicating to the heart, and the lyrics are telling a story in such a gift-wrapped-with-a-bow type of way. There’s really no fat on the songwriting.”
Myers’s music leans more toward contemporary art song than Broadway belt, so it attracts a more classically trained singer, and this plays to Massell’s vocal strengths. “Samantha has one of the best legit singing voices in the Broadway musical theatre community,” Schwartz enthused. “And that has allowed Madeline to write Rosalind as a vocal character in a very exciting and unique way.”
In a confluence of events, Myers and Schwartz both found themselves in Denmark in 2018, where Myers was working as a composer and English-language lyricist on The Devil’s Apprentice with librettist Philip LaZebnik. Schwartz was there working on a different show with LaZebnik, and Myers and Schwartz inevitably met at one of their rehearsals.
Back in New York, Myers and Schwartz had lunch on the Upper West Side, where Schwartz suggested they find something to work on together. Myers proposed the idea for Double Helix, though she said she wasn’t sure if it was something she should pursue. But Schwartz responded with excitement, saying, “That’s it—that’s the show.” Schwartz was also in agreement about Massell as Franklin, as he had directed her in the original cast of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at La Jolla Playhouse and at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Work began on the show in earnest in 2019, and Massell has since done every reading and developmental step except the 2023 Festival of New Musicals at Goodspeed, which casts students from nearby colleges and universities. She has championed the musical alongside Myers and Schwartz, not only because she believes in the piece, but because she has seen firsthand how Franklin’s story has affected audiences.
“When Madeline shared the story of Rosalind at the Dramatists Guild Foundation, you could see everyone in the room, every single person, lean in,” Massell recalled. “And that’s been my experience as I’ve shared this story with people in our development process. Everyone leans in.”
Ultimately, it’s Massell’s connection to this character that propels her forward with the show. “I feel this story in my bones,” she said. “It just feels very tailored to who I am.” While it is common for actors to work on many versions of a musical and give feedback, Massell’s deep involvement from the show’s inception is somewhat rare. “This show means so much to me,” Massell said, her eyes teary.
As Myers wrote various drafts, Massell was on hand to sing through material and provide feedback, and her involvement materially influenced the show’s development. For instance, on one song, “The Solution,” Massell suggested a different song structure. The structure had been A-B-A: a verse, a bridge, then a second version of the verse. Massell thought perhaps another A section was needed, making the song a more traditional A-A-B-A structure often found in musical theatre—i.e., in which the second A section further develops the song’s musical idea before moving into new material in the bridge.
Massell also noticed that when she sang through the song, the lyrics frequently referred to another character: Jacques Mering, Franklin’s love interest. She recalled a version of the song from two years prior, when Franklin was struggling with her relationship with Morris Wilkins, her adversary at the lab at King’s College, and suggested she bring him back into the song. Both suggestions resulted in another rewrite.
After years of readings and concerts, the team is finally able to see the show on its feet, and Massell’s familiarity with the show has allowed for a more streamlined rehearsal period. “To have an actor who walks in and just knows who the character is on a very cellular level—it’s really a huge boon in the process,” Schwartz said.
Still, Myers said, even after years honing this character, Massell manages to surprise her. “I think I have an idea of what it’s going to sound like or what it’s going to look like or what it’s going to feel like watching it, and I’m just dazzled and humbled,” Myers marveled. “There’s something she does that’s totally unexpected that I wasn’t anticipating when I wrote it.”
Science is a major part of Franklin’s life and story, but not the only part. In fact, Franklin’s work-life balance is the central question of the show, and Massell and Myers have been determined throughout the creation of Double Helix to convey Franklin’s full humanity, especially since she died so young and was never able to tell her own story. They discovered that Franklin loved fashion, which led costume designer Ashley Soliman to dress Massell in smart tailored pieces of the era. “I love that she’s this lady in the lab, uncovering the secret of life but also she looks fabulous,” Massell said.
Franklin also loved hiking, which plays a role in the musical, as well as French culture and food. She was Jewish, which touched both Massell and Myers, also both Jewish. “Every single thing I learned about Rosalind was surprising,” Myers said. “Every page that I turn has just been a joy to learn about her.”
Like the double helix’s two encircling strands, Myers and Massell have reached their own discovery: a new musical portrait of a scientist who contributed to our understanding of life. Now perhaps the world can begin to understand hers.
Shoshana Greenberg (she/her) is a writer based in New York City.
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