BWW Interview: Chatting with ATOMIC Star Sara Gettelfinger
Atomic, the off-Broadway musical that opened last night, brings Sara Gettelfinger back to the New York stage. After costarring on Broadway opposite Antonio Banderas in Nine and Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Gettelfinger has been working on the road the last few years--headlining the tours of The Addams Family (as Morticia) and 101 Dalmatians (Cruella de Vil) and regional productions of Chicago (Velma Kelly at Boston's Reagle Music Theatre) and Grey Gardens ("Little" Edie, StageWorks Fresno). Her last NYC production was John Guare's A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center Theater in 2010.
BWW spoke with Gettelfinger during rehearsals for Atomic, which is scheduled to run through Aug. 16 at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd St. The fact-based musical centers on the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era program that developed the atomic bomb, and specifically on Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian-born physicist who instigated its formation. Jeremy Kushnier portrays Szilárd, and Gettelfinger plays his wife, Trude. The cast also features Euan Morton as Robert Oppenheimer and Jonathan Hammond as Enrico Fermi--both Manhattan Project scientists--and Randy Harrison as Paul Tibbets, the Air Force officer who piloted the Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Atomic world-premiered last fall in Sydney, Australia.
How do you describe the show besides "...about the Manhattan Project"?
They're trying to tell the story of these scientists who did something that had such a massive impact on our world, and really trying to tell the story of the struggle they had in their hearts, in their consciences. I think that is something that is very timeless and heartbreaking--that, often, tragic events in our world come from people who were trying to do the right thing and trying to cause the least amount of pain. You can never make those kind of decisions on that scale without some people suffering. So I think there's a really beautiful examination of the conflict of the heart and mind, what it's like to be responsible for what's happening in the world and also be able to lay your head on the pillow and sleep at night.
Did the company do research, given that you're playing real people?
We've been doing a lot of backstory, in terms of the period in general, in terms of the origins of these characters, certainly a lot of political history in terms of what was going on in their lives and what was about to happen in their lives. It's been quite an education getting ready for this play.
This seems like unusual subject matter for a musical. What does telling the story musically add?
The one word that comes to mind is "epic." It's an epic story, the subject matter is epic, the place it has in history is epic, therefore it lends itself to a more heightened style of storytelling. It's very passionate, and the people's motivation for committing themselves to this project, this endeavor, was incredibly passionate.
Tell us about your character Trude.
She was, obviously, very much in love with Leó, and would ultimately spend a lot of her life following him as he went all over the world to continue his studies and continue his work. But she was a pediatric surgeon, so she was quite brilliant in her own right, and that's something that's been really wonderful to examine: Even though a lot of the attention was focused on Leó, both of them were very brilliant minds, and I think that played a lot into why they were drawn together into a relationship.
What about their relationship makes for good drama?
I think, as you often find with brilliant people, when they're in the lab or when they're in the operating room--when they're in their element as far as what they do intellectually--they excel, but when it comes time to be just a human being, in matters of the heart, it's more complicated, because it isn't a black-and-white world and things are not formulaic. It's basically the two of them finding a way to dedicate their lives to science and contributing something to the human race, but also finding time to be flawed human beings that can take comfort in one another.
Does anything about her remind you of characters you've played before?
I've played a lot of women who've suffered for love. One thing that I really enjoy is playing women that are very strong and are working very hard to develop themselves as individuals, but at the same time--because life is complicated--they love a strong man very deeply. That is a running theme.
Have you worked previously with any member of the cast or creative team?
The only person that I do have a history with, funny enough, but we never performed together is, Randy Harrison and I went to college together, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. I'm a little older than him, but we were there at the same time.
Do you dance in the show?
There's just one scene where I play a character in Oak Ridge, Tennessee--a woman that is working on building the bomb. I do a little bit of dancing in the scene, but very minimal.
Are you okay with parts that have less dancing than those you played earlier in your career?
Well, to be honest, I've been very fortunate that a lot of the roles I'm being considered for now involve more character work and not as much dancing. Let's be real, I'm almost 40...you can gracefully move away, but joints and aches and pains also encourage you to move away from dancing! I always dreamed to be able to go back and forth between plays and musicals, so that was a real dream come true when that happened.