Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book: Peter Duchan
Producer: Kurt Deutsch, Lawrence Manchester, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Dogfight is an all-American musical set in Los Angeles between 1963 and 1967 around the time of the Vietnam conflict. Premiering off Broadway in 2011, it tells of three young Marines on their last night on the town before shipping out to war. The “dogfight” of the title is a cruel lads game in which each Marine has to find the least attractive girl to take on a date. The guy who, in the opinion of his buddies, brings the ugliest date wins the pot of cash that they have all funded.
It’s a simple, sadly plausible, premise for a tale already made into an acclaimed 1991 movie and Paul, Pasek and Duchan have plenty of rich material: reckless abandon; broken hearts; hope and despair, with the looming background of war’s potential fatalities, with which to fashion a musical that touches on many of life’s grand and sweeping issues.
Of the three Marines, Privates Bernstein and Boland are the most carefree and selfish, each inviting a girl to accompany them to the dance hall, before callously discarding their partners in favour of fairground rides and whores. It is Birdlace who gets caught up in the emotional turmoil of the upset he has caused his girl Rose and a complex love emerges between them.
The numbers are written with a perceptive ear for a 1960s sound yet still acknowledging the expectations of a 21st century audience. Birdlace’s ‘Come To A Party’ is a buoyant song as he lathers on the flattery to shy homely Rose. Her song that follows, ‘Nothing Short of Wonderful’, a sweet girly whirl of a tune as she preps her hair and outfit for the night out is all the more poignant for us knowing that she is being set up. The Marines ultimately vote Boland’s girl Marcy as the ugliest date, and when she, in the Ladies Room, tells Rose that the evening has been a dogfight, the lyrics have a raucous piercing honesty, as we hear Rose’s bubble bursting.
‘Hometown Heroe’s Tickertape Parade’ is a riotous explosion of pre-conflict optimism that the Marines sing whilst on the town. Its lyrics are cleverly reprised post-war, when emotions are far more grounded and those who survived the war confront a very unglamorous reality as homecoming veterans.
From a broader UK perspective however this show is likely to have little appeal and the prospect of it becoming a commercial success “over here” is remote. The story is so enmeshed in the post-Vietnam psyche of modern America that other than perhaps via an off West End or work-shopped production it is unlikely to cross the Atlantic.
Dogfight is nonetheless an album that is entertaining from the outset with a storyline and lyrics that are clear to follow. It’s an innovative sound that remains a pleasing purchase for all who have a passion for the musical theatre medium.