An Apollo 11 ‘Oratorio,’ Told by Those Who Were There

[Read all Times reporting on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.]

On the phone with his interview subjects, J.T. Rogers had to keep hitting the mute button. He was weeping, and he didn’t want them to hear.

The conversations were research for his new play, “One Giant Leap, 50 Years On,” about the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969 — not, on the face of it, a tear-jerking topic.

But Mr. Rogers, 51, whose historically inspired peace-accords drama “Oslo” won the 2017 Tony Award for best play, was talking with people who’d experienced the mission up close. As he asked what it meant to them from a distance of five decades, the humanity of their responses got to him.

It wasn’t just their thoughtfulness or eloquence, he said one afternoon last week. It was also that many of them, having been present for such a hopeful human moment, were “so crushed about where they see our world politically now versus then.”

Those interviews form the heart of “One Giant Leap,” whose reading on Sunday evening at the Town Hall — part of a New York Times-sponsored celebration of the 50th anniversary — will be a starry affair. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the Tony winner who helmed “Oslo,” it will include three actors from his current Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Jeff Daniels, Dakin Matthews and LaTanya Richardson Jackson — whose husband, Samuel L. Jackson, will also be part of the 10-person “Giant Leap” cast.

[Read a roundup of events related to the Apollo 11 anniversary.]

The play, which Mr. Rogers described as a 45-minute “theater oratorio,” was commissioned about six months ago by The New York Times. He decided it should be cast across lines of race and age and gender, turning a story about what he called “white dudes with the same haircut” into a story that belongs to everyone.

Though he’s borrowed from Apollo 11 mission transcripts (sparingly) and Times coverage (likewise), he emphasized that the play is not pure documentary. In shaping and polishing its text, he’s taken some artistic liberties.

Last week, Mr. Rogers was still revising the script, whose characters include Michael Collins, the astronaut who flew the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the moon; Margaret Hamilton, the computer scientist who led NASA’s team of software engineers; and John Wolfram, a Navy frogman who recovered the capsule after the three astronauts splashed down. (Mr. Collins is slated to be on hand on Sunday for a post-performance panel discussion moderated by Michael Barbaro.)

Sitting in Mr. Sher’s office at Lincoln Center, Mr. Rogers said that only one of the “Giant Leap” actors already knew which role he had been assigned. Mr. Matthews will play John Noble Wilford, the Times reporter whose coverage of the race to the moon — “that desolate realm of dream and scientific mystery,” he once called it — blended pristine wonkery and warm human detail with touches of poetry.

The play, whose emotional punch depends upon its tracing the history of the space program leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, has a lot of explaining to do, placing the events in the context of the time.

Mr. Wilford, 85, has “sort of become the Virgil of the story,” Mr. Rogers said, because of “his ability to step back and paint the larger picture.”

In a phone interview from his home in Bellport, Long Island, that’s exactly what Mr. Wilford did, conjuring the excitement of the era, the rapid pace of scientific progress and the relative youth of the Apollo 11 astronauts — like him, then all in their 30s.

NASA’s arrival on the moon made good on John F. Kennedy’s vow that the United States would be there before the ’60s were done. But it was a turbulent decade. Mr. Wilford remembers 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, as “one of the worst years in my lifetime from the standpoint of the public, of being an American.”

That December, when the Apollo 8 astronauts triumphantly circumnavigated the moon, taking the famous photo of the Earth with the moon in the foreground, “It was the first hopeful thing that had happened all year,” Mr. Wilford said.

Mr. Rogers was only 14 months old the next summer when Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle landed. His parents woke him from his crib to watch it on TV — his first memory, he says, unless he just heard the story enough times that he burnished it into recollection.

He didn’t grow up to be “a space head,” as he put it; he wasn’t wild about all things astronaut. Still, reading the Apollo 11 transcripts made him optimistic. Reminded that people working together can achieve astonishing things, and fast, Mr. Rogers intends “One Giant Leap” as a patriotic act in our turbulent time, to pass that feeling on.

“It is a piece about hope and wonder,” he said. “And I could use a little hope and wonder right now.”

One Giant Leap: The Apollo 11 Moon Landing, 50 Years On

July 21 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, Manhattan;

Live stream at

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