“Radium Girls: In Concert” Shines at Olde Club
On Saturday, February 16th at 7pm, a crowd gathered in Olde Club for the second of two performances of Radium Girls: In Concert, a student-written musical performance telling the story of American women in World War I who took jobs previously only open to men before they were deployed to fight. The story follows four women who are excited to work painting watch dials with radium, but slowly realize the hazardous nature of the substance, as they begin to die one by one, due to the loss of protective equipment given to the original male workers. Though they stage protests and file lawsuits, the power of the company for which they work forces these women to either sign an agreement to hide the scandal or die before their lawsuit is resolved. Rooted in history, this performance mixes the storytelling of a typical musical with the fresh style of a rock opera.
For 30 minutes, the audience enjoys a rock concert, cheering when each performer comes on stage and raising their arms high in the air, swaying to the slow, sad melody of Katie Phillips’s ‘21 voice as her character Mollie slowly succumbs to the poisonous radium. When the remaining women begin protesting, cast members hand out posters to the audience members, encouraging them to participate in the action. “Radium Girls: In Concert” most certainly is not a traditional musical theater performance. So, what exactly is it? As Yougo Kamgaing ‘22, who played Ella in the performance, hesitantly said in an interview with Voices: “A rock-opera-theater-concert-musical?”
Director, writer, musical director, and bass player Fouad Dakwar ‘22 first dreamt up the idea of “Radium Girls” two years prior, after reading an article about the real radium girls. For him, the story was “theatrical and so modern still, especially workers’ rights and feminist movements, and intersectionality and the connection between those two, was so present there. And I saw the use of fake news honestly, of scientists and the company that were in charge of minimizing the girls’ suffering, pinning their symptoms on STDs and syphilis, which was really prevalent at the time to discredit them. It was really exactly what we’re seeing today with movements for equality against capitalist exploitation.” Drawing on his musical theater background, he wrote a song in his head right then and there, but kept the general concept sealed away, writing a couple of songs here and there without any plans to release it to the world.
Things changed for Dakwar and “Radium Girls” when a friend of his in high school was looking to direct a musical for a senior project and asked him to write a piece. For him, this was a perfect opportunity to test run this different style of musical theater. In two weeks, he cobbled together the disorganized songs he had been writing, turning it into more of a reading with Dakwar on the keyboard and another musician on the electric guitar. Nevertheless, Dakwar saw this as the first iteration of what eventually became this weekend’s performance at Olde Club.
Dakwar’s real inspiration for this specific performance came after Funk the Patriarchy played at the end of last semester. “I saw them in Olde Club and I saw the Radium Girls in my head, like I saw it and it clicked and I said, ‘I’m doing this show. In Olde Club. Standing room only.’”
With Olde Club’s only unbooked weekend being February 15th, Dakwar quickly gathered a team of passionate performers, musicians, and crew to pull it off. In the four weeks that followed, the team turned what was tape recordings of Dakwar singing coupled with some chords, into a full performance. “I wanted it to be collaborative,” he emphasized. “I wanted it to be like a concert, not only in the product but also the journey so it really was a concert. So there were multiple times when I was like, ‘Make up a harmony here! Wait no, that harmony you did there was better. Keep doing that.’”
He also credited the band for their efforts. “They took the chords I wrote and made it like an actual thing. They added these solos and riffs and Max [Barry ‘19] makes up these amazing drum arrangements, so it was all so collaborative and I couldn’t have done it with anyone else.”
Throughout the entire process, Dakwar kept his focus on his goal of creating a musical theater performance accessible to everyone. For him, Broadway’s Hamilton was a breakthrough piece that opened up a new realm for musical theater. As Kamgaing said, “Pre-Hamilton a lot of theater was all Sound of Music and Wicked, in which you are given pop-y or kind of opera-ish songs and with Hamilton it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be rap, it can be rock. And this what this is...So this is not theater music, this is music that we listen to every day, any day every day.”
Dakwar noted with pride the differences between Friday’s performance of “Radium Girls” and a typical musical theater performance. “I think seeing the way people reacted, and even just seeing people recording on their phones and Snapchatting was so exciting for me because it was like, ‘Good. They’re out of their comfort zones,’” he said. Dakwar continued by explaining the ways in which he played with the audience, pulling them from being fully immersed in a musical story to a scene where the music cuts and the lights come on when one of the girls decides to sign the plea deal because she knows she’ll die before the case is settled. For him, this was an effort to reveal the gravity of the situation, the fact that there would be no happy ending.
The performance ends with a similar mood, leaving the audience in silence, unsure of what to do.
“All the girls decide to take a plea deal - the ones that haven’t died off. So they each walk through the audience itself all the way to the back door of Olde Club where people entered from,” Dakwar described. “So they leave out of there and the final [girl], Katherine, played by Sam Ortiz-Clark [‘22], she decides to sign the plea deal. She throws it behind her because she’s unhappy about it obviously. Takes one of our lights, unplugs it, so suddenly that light goes out, leaves the theater through the crowd again and we’re left in this weird darkness. And suddenly the band starts packing up, unplugging their amps and just leaving, and the audience is left with like ‘What? What do we do?’ They didn’t know whether to clap.
“One of the biggest problems I had as a director, like decision-wise, was whether to give the performers a bow, because I think they really deserve the acknowledgement, but I ended up deciding with their help figuring it out that it was best to leave the audience in that phase. I think if we brought them all out and played a reprise of the opening, it would be like, all those feelings don’t matter anymore, like, you’re safe now, you’re back in the good place. I decided to have them leave and they just don’t come back and the band leaves. We’re left in darkness. The audience [Friday] night stood around for about two minutes straight in silence waiting for something to happen, waiting for anything, and we just didn’t give it to them until they decided to clap.”
And clap they did. On Saturday, unlike on Friday, the cast more quickly returned to the room, releasing the audience from the uncertainty of what would come next, the conclusion was all the same. No final bow. No encore. No happy ending, but a new concept of what musical theater at Swarthmore could be.
As for what’s next for Dakwar and “Radium Girls”? Look out for an album with all the show’s songs to relive the story of these four women. Dakwar also hopes that his show can be one of the first in a line of new kind of music theater at Swarthmore. “I hope that people see this and are like, ‘wow theater can be a dream to me, too,’” he says. “I think there has been a call for that, for more musicals on campus, and I think we put it together, student run, in four weeks on a $50 budget. So if we can do it, anyone can do it.”
A full script can be found here.