Scottish musical arrives in Atlanta with an important public health message

When Dr. Meghan Perry approached composer Robin Hiley — CEO of Charades Theatre Company in Scotland — about creating a new musical on the power of antibiotics, the prospect of a world full of masks, social distancing, and mass quarantine probably seemed like an impossibility. Yet here we are, and in the wake of a global pandemic that has caused an irrevocable social, cultural, and psychological shift, the story of one man’s historical medical breakthrough has taken on an undeniable resonance. Coming off a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, that story will be making its way to Atlanta.

Credit: Robin Mair

Credit: Robin Mair

“The Mold that Changed the World” is a musical that tells the story of Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician and microbiologist who discovered penicillin, the world’s first widely effective antibiotic. This discovery is what enabled modern healthcare to evolve to where it is today, lowering the mortality rates of surgeries and C-sections and enabling treatments for devastating conditions like cancer and HIV.

The musical was first conceived by Perry in 2016 in an attempt to raise awareness of antimicrobial resistance (or AMR), a phenomenon caused by overexposure to antibiotics that causes them to lose their effectiveness. AMR also leads to the creation of “superbugs,” or infections and diseases that resist treatment because the body no longer responds to antibiotics. The World Health Organization has named AMR as one of the top 10 global health threats facing humanity, and it is considered the third leading underlying cause of death across the globe.

As healthcare workers and infectious disease specialists across the globe work to combat this dangerous issue, Robin Hiley and Charades Theatre Company have taken on the role of spreading awareness and generating discussion on AMR by using the arts to engage people on a more human level. “We need to get people’s hearts and use this story of Fleming and his legacy to explain that we need to have a look at the way we are prescribing and using antibiotics throughout society,” Hiley said.

Although initially reluctant to take on a musical about antibiotics, Hiley was taken with Fleming’s story, not only as a famous Scot, but as a medical pioneer. He felt that placing Fleming at the center of the project allowed them to preserve the human element of the story while still championing an important message about a pressing health crisis.

The show went on to sell out the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018, earning rave reviews from critics and audiences, before being put on hold in 2020 due to pandemic closures. It is now returning, after yet another sold out run in Edinburgh, now with an expanded script (the original production was only about an hour, a typical length for the Fringe Festival).

It is only natural that Perry would come to Charades Theatre Company to kickstart this project, given that the company has a history of community-based and educational theatre. The company runs numerous programs for children in the latter stages of primary education, often performing at schools and youth theatre groups in an attempt to involve young people in the arts. Teachers and administrators across Scotland have praised Charades for its ability to engage the interest of students at various ages while producing shows of professional quality.

Credit: Robin Mair

Credit: Robin Mair

Hiley partially credits this focus on community and education with inspiring the most unusual element of the show. The entire chorus is composed of real healthcare professionals, performing alongside experienced West End actors. These chorus members are recruited for each production using local healthcare workers from the area in which the show performs, meaning that this production will feature scientists and healthcare workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other Atlanta medical institutions. This choice was made with the intention of capturing the voices of those who witness the effects of AMR on a daily basis.

“Working with the team behind ‘The Mold That Changed the World’ has been such a gift,” said Tess Palmer, epidemiologist at the CDC. “I have been working in public health emergencies for my entire career, and to get the chance to dive head first in to a challenge that is both so different from my daily life and so relevant to it at the same time is a once in a lifetime chance. One of our most important duties in public health is communicating issues like antimicrobial resistance to the public, and this show does an incredible job at this — in an entertaining, accurate, and poignant way.”

Recasting the chorus for each locale means that the production is constantly in the process of rehearsing in a group of less-experienced performers, a process for which they usually have about two weeks. While this abbreviated process presents challenges, it provides a unique opportunity to gain insight into the realities of AMR and what it will take to find viable solutions.

Increased support from healthcare officials is one of the chief things that Hiley points out when asked how the show has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s kind of this change of mindset at that real top level,” he says. “Thinking ‘right, we need to do this differently.’”

Hiley praised the chorus members not only for their willingness to dive into such an unfamiliar challenge, but for the authority and reality that they have lent the production. Indeed, audience members have commented on how sincere the performances from the chorus are, despite their lack of professional acting experience. Hiley points out that they have a personal stake in the story. Not only that, but many of them have varying degrees of prior experience, having done community, high school and/or university productions: “We have found that when you scratch the surface, it’s amazing how medicine and music actually go together.”

“An audition for a musical about science looking for scientists seemed too good to be true, but when a friend brought it up I signed up immediately,” said Dante Bugli, CDC epidemiologist. “It’s been incredible teaming up with the Charades cast and crew to highlight AMR. My one-liner to friends and families has been that the show is giving Alexander Fleming the ‘Hamilton’ treatment showing the context to his life and discovery.”


“The Mold that Changed the World”

Nov. 2-6. Tickets start at $25. Pullman Yards, 225 Rogers St NE, Atlanta.