Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul give Musical Theatre Review their first UK interview in the run-up to the European premiere of their show Dogfight, opening this coming Wednesday 13 August at London’s Southwark Playhouse.
Since meeting at the University of Michigan where they were working on their Musical Theatre degrees, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have continued to write as a team, becoming Tony Award nominees in 2013 for A Christmas Story: The Musical which also received six Drama Desk Award nominations.
They have also written a song cycle, Edges (2005) about the search for adult love and commitment, which has had more than 200 performances worldwide. They adapted Roald Dahl’s story of James and the Giant Peach, and have written other pieces as well as songs for the NBC series Smash and Disney Channel’s Johnny and the Sprites.
This month sees the European premiere of their musical Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse. Based on the 1991 River Phoenix and Lili Taylor film, Dogfight received the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre, and two Lucile Lortel Awards, for Outstanding Musical and Choreography, as well as five nominations for the Outer Critics’ Circle Awards and two Drama League Award nominations.
Michael Darvell asks the questions:
When Peter Duchan, your book writer, showed you the DVD of Dogfight, what drew you to adapting an obscure film that had opened in only a few US cinemas and went straight to video in the UK?
Benj Pasek: Well first of all, we just want to say we’re very excited to have Dogfight premiere in London and we can’t wait to see the show! In terms of making the choice to adapt the film initially, we basically knew we wanted to work with Peter, and we gave him the task of finding something for young people that was a coming-of-age story.
What was amazing about seeing the DVD of Dogfight, was that when they gave the description of the story, Justin and I immediately had this visceral reaction of frustration and sympathy for the lead character Rose. And we realised that when we told other people the plot, they had the same reaction. So we were struck by the fact that people instantly felt emotionally connected to the lead character, and the more emotional a story the more it lends itself to song. Another reason we were drawn to Dogfight was because it was not extremely well known. With well-known titles, people anticipate lines and plot points, but with this we had permission to make it our own and create our own tale, and nobody would be upset if we missed their favourite part.
Justin Paul: Part of what drew us to the film was actually that obscurity – that we could take a little-known source material and take what’s wonderful about it, but also make necessary changes to adapt it for the stage. We could highlight what was so great about the film, while at the same time not be precious about adhering strictly to anything. That’s a special sort of freedom as a writer – a best of both worlds. To have a tested story that holds up, but that you can still vary from when need be.
Beyond that, we were taken with Dogfight being a quite unconventional love story. Of course, in a source material we look for emotional high points (and low points), but it was refreshing to find something that dealt with love and a relationship while approaching it from a different, more complicated angle. We immediately identified with the character Rose, who was the victim of a cruel joke. But at the same time, we also identified with Eddie, who subscribed to a sort of ‘mob mentality’ in a way that’s not so dissimilar to modern bullying. I think we’ve all been on both sides of this issue, we’ve been both characters. So it’s an incredibly relatable story with enough drama, enough fun, enough intrigue. We were really taken with the film upon first viewing.
The plot is very un-PC: a group of US Marines about to be shipped out to Vietnam in 1963 have a bet on who can date the ugliest girl on the block. Were you worried that an audience might turn against the theme, even though it may have been or still is common practice in real life.
BP: What we hoped to achieve was to take a real event and show how even from something like this, this ugly side of humanity, someone can learn and grow from a place of ignorance, and even learn compassion. Yes, there were concerns about ‘will characters be likeable’, but what we found to be the case was that because there is so much growth and the character goes on a journey, the audience is able to connect to that. When Eddie is shown another path, a much more redemptive path, his character develops, and audiences like to go on that ride.
JP: I think we knew from very early on that we’d have to really carefully navigate this issue. We of course didn’t want the audience to turn against the theme, or against the characters. But then again, we didn’t want to sugar-coat their behaviour or the reality that this did actually happen. I think it was a constant struggle to find a balance, and hopefully we’ve done it. But I think a big part of it is knowing that these guys are not malicious, they are not intentionally brutal. During this process, we talked a lot about ‘casual cruelty’. These boys have not been conditioned into kindness – they’ve learned cruelty. Not a conscious thing, it’s just that they don’t know any better.
The creative team behind the film often talked about the connection between the dogfight and these boys going off to war. When they were sent to Vietnam, they were asked to basically turn off the ‘empathy switch’. They really had to steel themselves in order to complete the missions they were given. Empathy wasn’t an option. So in a way, this final act of the dogfight is an odd bonding experience in which they’re doing just that – they’re turning off the empathy switch. It’s not pretty, it’s not right – but it’s reality. And the behaviour shouldn’t be excused or condoned – but when we approach it from that perspective, and knowing that they are not doing this to be intentionally cruel, they just do not at all think about the consequences of their actions… I think that helps give a glimpse into the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind what they are doing, and how they are treating these girls.
Did you think that under the surface lay a message about human behaviour and relationships that cuts through the sexist element of Dogfight?
BP: Absolutely. What’s important to remember is that the guys are not intentionally cruel. As Marines, they were conditioned to dehumanise people, and if you look at the context of what they were going to do after being shipped off it makes sense. They were going to have to kill people and not see others as humans, so the systematic conditioning that they went through stripped away their ability to look at others with empathy. So in this circumstance they didn’t know any better, or that what they were doing was wrong. They were following in a military tradition of fathers and grandfathers going off to war, and saw their actions as a sort of bonding experience. The examination that happens in the show is that by getting to know someone better and seeing a new perspective, you find that individual does have humanity, and that realisation can rock your world.
JP: Definitely. The show certainly comments on the way these guys treated the girls, but at its core this is about the connection between two human beings, and the effect they are able to have on each other. For Eddie, there is something about Rose that stops him. She stops him in his tracks. And he doesn’t really understand what it is or why it is, maybe he never does. But something grips him and it holds on all through the war experience that he has. So much so that afterwards he is compelled to return to her, to seek comfort and safety with her. And the interesting and unexpected thing is that he changes her. She is certainly wounded by the early events of the night, but she also realises that something has changed in her. Maybe they both assumed too much about each other. Or maybe they just both needed each other, despite flaws and misfires and judgments. It’s about these two small people changing each other, even the tiniest bit.
Dogfight’s hero, Corporal Eddie Birdlace, gradually realises that the girl he has chosen is not the plain Jane he at first thought her to be. Is this the point where young men are made aware of their dehumanisation of women as sex objects and, in the process of writing the musical, did you come to understand their demeaning of women and why they do it?
BP: This goes back to turning off the empathy switch. These characters were going to war to do these awful things to strangers and were conditioned to dehumanise and disconnect so they wouldn’t have to feel anything. But what Rose forces Eddie to see her as a human being and a person who has feelings. She shows him that his actions matter and affect people, and this challenges him in a way that he’s never been challenged before. Rose holds up a mirror and forces Eddie to look at himself and look far beyond anything he had comprehended up to that point. Even when they’re initially walking to the Dogfight, they have a political discussion and he shuts it down because he doesn’t want to confront it. But as the plot progresses, he has to confront his way of thinking and see the world from someone else’s perspective.
JP: I think Eddie Birdlace does, throughout this evening, begin to understand that he has grossly and wrongly misjudged Rose. And we root for him to understand that she is an absolutely beautiful girl, in every way. Perhaps by his own conventional standards, she doesn’t fit his definition of ‘pretty’. But as he comes to know her, he truly does fall for her. And through this, he begins to learn about compassion. He begins to learn about kindness. I think it takes a lot for these young men to realise that dehumanisation is taking place, and just how guilty they are. Most of his buddies don’t ever get it. I’m not sure Eddie fully gets it that night. But it starts the process.
I think we as writers talked a lot about this. From a very simplistic perspective – this was a way these guys bonded together. It’s just like when we make fun of someone in the office or on the playground or in the rehearsal room so we can fit in. Gossip and trash-talk are very easy things to join in on, and they suddenly make you part of the bigger group if that’s the activity the group is engaged in. So this was something all of these guys could do together. And it made them feel powerful. In a moment when they were probably scared beyond belief of what lay ahead of them, they felt in control and like they could run the world, even for just the night. Thankfully much has changed, politically and socially, since this time… so this sort of behaviour and subjugation of women is far less commonplace. But then again – look at rape culture in college campuses. Look at how groups of young men are using social media to shame young women with explicit photos and images. It’s all dehumanising. It all still happens. I think we wanted to draw that parallel, for folks to think ‘Hey, this is still a problem, it still needs to be addressed’.
As the Vietnam War was such a long time ago, do you think it still has relevance for young people today surrounded by wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine etc?
BP: What is so fascinating about the Vietnam War is that it was the first time a war zone was televised and the front lines were brought into the living rooms of civilians. It made people politically aware, active participants in deciding what they wanted the country to do militarily, rather than just consumers of propaganda. During Vietnam people became incredible engaged. We are all exposed to the 24-hour news cycle now, and it’s changed the landscape of how we consume information and the way we feel about conflicts. But you do also see people express their opinions and engage in what’s going on in a way that never existed before the 1960s.
JP: A story set in this era still has great relevance, for these exact reasons. I think one thing we authors talked a lot about was America’s fall from grace right around the time in which this show is set. And how similarly it paralleled the time in which we were writing it – American perception abroad surrounding the war in Iraq, etc. There are a lot of parallels between the era of Dogfight and our own.
In a gay (Benj Pasek) and straight (Justin Paul) writing partnership, does the difference between you afford you a better insight into human behaviour? It worked for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and it seems to work for you.
BP: That’s very nice, thank you! I think that similar to the show where two people with very different perspectives collide, it’s a catalyst for new ideas created. We grew up seeing the world differently. If we only viewed the world in our individual ways, we’d have no balance of perspective. We don’t always agree, in fact, we often disagree! But that kind of tension allows for something new to emerge.
JP: I can only imagine that our differences, which range far beyond just our sexual orientation, afford us as a team better insight. So much of writing is about tapping into a character and their experiences. So the more varied your experiences, the better. I think we really value having different perspectives on lots of things, and hopefully those differences balance themselves out, channelling into songwriting that is at least a somewhat accurate depiction of the human experience!
How would you describe your music and songwriting? Is it based on traditional Broadway methods or do you bring a more current pop sensibility to your work?
BP: We are influenced by lots of things. Traditional musical theatre writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Golden Age of musical theatre, but we also grew up not too long ago and were tremendously influenced by pop artists as well. But we try to take many influences and apply what makes sense in the context of our characters. Ultimately, we’re writing specifically for character, and that’s the filter through which we allow musical and lyrical influence.
JP: Our goal has always been to write whatever kind of songs best fit the story we are writing them for. The story and the characters are always dictating how the music should sound, how the lyrics should flow, and what the overall writing style should be. We’ve grown up on classic Broadway scores and cast albums, so that element will always be ingrained in us and our writing. But we are also big fans of popular music and can’t deny that sometimes the songs we hear on the radio just feel great – they just capture a feeling and a moment so very well.
So ideally we strike a balance and we bring an accessible musical sound to our songs while still maintaining a theatrical, narrative-based lyric. But again, it’s all about the story. For Dogfight, we wanted to blend a classic theatre sound with sounds of the era, folk and rock, and mix in a dash of contemporary and fresh theatre music as well. For a newer show we’re writing, the characters and story exist in 2014. So the music sounds much more like today’s radio than a traditional Broadway score.
Who are your favourite musical composers and lyricists and have any of them influenced you in your work?
BP: Sondheim is a big one. Other favorites are people from the Golden Age, like Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then Kander and Ebb, and then more contemporary writers like Stephen Schwartz, Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx, Ahrens and Flaherty, John Bucchino and David Zippel. And we’ve had the honour of learning directly from some of these composers, and had the chance to meet a lot of our heroes. Ahrens and Flaherty came to the premiere of Dogfight, Stephen Schwartz saw the show as well and gave us notes that we’ve been able to incorporate. So the influence of these composers and lyricists not only includes their work, but some of their direct advice. And it has been truly remarkable to learn from them and incorporate their tremendous amount of knowledge into our shows.
JP: The list is far too long to name every single one. I think the neatest thing is to talk about the musical composers/lyricists who are not only our heroes, but our mentors, many of which Benj has mentioned above. That’s the most exciting thing – to have listened to someone’s work and admired them for years and then get the chance to sit in a room to have a chat about writing, to play them your songs, to receive valuable feedback after a reading or preview. There is a wonderful tradition of passing down this art form and mentoring up-and-coming writers. It’s very, very special.
When asked what comes first, the words or the music, Sammy Cahn once said ‘the phone call’. With you, do you work out the songs by writing both lyrics and music together?
BP: Every song is approached in a different way. Sometimes music comes first if the need of the song is to communicate emotion. Emotional content comes from music. If the need is to convey information or be funny or specific, then the lyrics are the starting focus. We first talk about the main idea for the song and once we solidify that, we’ll go on to the needs of the song. But every piece is it’s own animal and is approached based on what is happening in that moment in the show.
JP: I think our answer would ‘the argument’! Truly – we spend a lot of time just talking back and forth, going over and over and over the material and deciding just what the song should be. Sometimes that comes for a lyrical idea or hook or catchphrase. Sometimes it starts with a musical impulse or gesture. But before any of that, there’s the long conversation of deciding what this moment should be, what it needs to say, what we want it to say. If we have that right and we agree and we’ve landed on the really truthful moment, then the nitty-gritty of music and lyrics should come somewhat naturally. But certainly not always!
You are no doubt working on something new at the moment, or do you wait for a commission? What can we expect from Pasek and Paul in the near future?
BP: We’re currently working on a few new musicals. One is a collaboration with Rick Elice, another is with director Michael Greif and playwright Steven Levenson which is an original musical that we just had the first reading of in New York City. We’re very excited about what all of these projects will become.
JP: We always try to keep busy with multiple irons in the fire, because of course you never know which project will fall through and which will suddenly catch on. We are currently working on a couple of commissions, some new musicals, along with songs for a movie musical that is in the works. We are quite excited about all of it and can’t wait to see how these projects develop!
* Dogfight opens at the Southwark Playhouse on Wednesday 13 August 2014 and runs until 13 September (the show began previews on 8 August.
* Benj Pasek and Justin Paul will attend the premiere, and they will also take part in an aftershow Q&A, hosted by critic Matt Wolf, London theatre critic of The International New York Times and London correspondent for broadway.com, following the performance of Dogfight on Thursday 14 August.
* Heading the London cast in the central roles of Eddie and Rose are Jamie Muscato and Laura Jane Matthewson. A video was recently released of Matthewson singing ‘Pretty Funny’ from the musical – click here to view.