ON THE RECORD: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Dogfight

By Steven Suskin
June 2, 2013

This week's column examines the original cast recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Off-Broadway musical Dogfight.

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Dogfight [Ghostlight]

How does a good musical go wrong? Scratch that; let's not call it a "good" musical, and let's definitely not label things "right" or "wrong." But Dogfight, the new musical that opened at Second Stage last July, was marked by interesting and well-crafted things from songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, plus an altogether exciting performance by Lindsay Mendez. But the musical — the plot of which was built around a harsh and ugly incident — unfurled in a manner which left many viewers uncomfortable and unsettled. And that is why, I suppose, this unquestionably promising production went no further.

Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Dogfight told of a bunch of Marines about to embark from San Francisco across the Pacific. In November 1963, the day before JFK is shot, they join together to wage a dogfight; that is, a dance in which the Marine who manages to bring the ugliest girl wins the cash prize. Yes, this is a cruel situation; the creators are using it to illustrate human nature at its worst. And yes, there is a valid dramatic reason. As the show progresses, things turn around and we start to see a better side of humanity.

But is it possible to be too ugly, to prove the authors' point? Too harsh? Consider West Side Story. If the Jets spent the entire first act cursing and plotting and cruelly manhandling the Sharks, would we have had too much of a bitter taste to care about what was going to happen to Tony and Maria?

The early scenes in Dogfight were simply ugly. The three Marines at the center of the story — led by Eddie Birdlace [Derek Klena], who ultimately becomes the leading man — are so foul and so vicious that they just might be unredeemable. At the end of the first act, one of the victimized girls tells one of the boys that she hopes they are sent off to war and killed. I suppose the intention was to have the audience agree with the sentiment, only to turn things around in the second act.

Lindsay Mendez
photo by Joan Marcus

But the production team (the songwriters plus librettist Peter Duchan (who provided some fine writing) and director Joe Mantello) made the boys' actions so distasteful that it was hard to muster much sympathy when they wanted/needed it. Yes, the whole point of the story is that the young and immaturely blustering marines — about to be sent to Vietnam — think it is manly to mistreat the "ugly" girls. But in various ways, including some cheap gags and laughs at the girls' expense, it seemed like the authors and director were stacking the decks just a little too much. Even after the plot turned tender and hopeful, the show left a sour taste.

The rescue of Dogfight began with the entrance of Mendez (one of the only bright spots in the 2011 revival of Godspell) as unattractive teenaged waitress Rose Fenny. Birdlace, looking for a "dog," invites Rose to the dance. Preparing for the ball like a fairy godmotherless Cinderella, Pasek and Paul give Rose a brightly attractive song called "Nothing Short of Wonderful." (A winning song, yes, although the boys — in this one number, only — seem to be paying a bit too much homage to Sondheim's Into the Woods.)

Rose's "Pretty Funny" — sung by the crestfallen girl after the plot has been revealed — is one of the score's best moments. There is a spot about two and a half minutes into the song where the music modulates, the pace accelerates, and you realize just how good these songwriters are. (It was also at this moment, at Second Stage, that Mendez turned magical.) The songwriters follow this, soon thereafter, with yet another winner. "First Date/Last Night," a duet for Eddie and Rose, is unexpected, unusual, and a perfect way to express what the characters are saying, thinking, and thinking-but-not-saying. There are additional songs that merit attention, including "Before Its Over" and "Give Way." And let's add a word for Michael Starobin's small-band orchestrations.

Derek Klena
Photo by Joan Marcus
Klena, who played Tommy, the likable boy who took that other awkward teen to the dance in the 2012 Off-Broadway revival of Carrie, does well once he gets past the "tough guy" songs the authors have written for him. Also making a noticeable, if brief, comic appearance is Annaleigh Ashford as a near-toothless prostitute who "wins" the dogfight and leads the fittingly harsh title song. Ashford, who is presently one of the anchors of Kinky Boots, made it clear last summer in Dogfight that she was a performer who was about to break through.

As for Pasek and Paul, they are a pair of songwriters whose scores you should be listening to. A Christmas Story seems unlikely to win big at this year's Tony Awards unless a couple hundred Tony voters sit down for four hours and listen, back-to-back, to the CDs of Matilda, Kinky Boots, Hands on a Hardbody and A Christmas Story that they received in the mail. Especially since the special "voters" edition of the latter includes "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," the big showstopper featuring Caroline O'Connor and the rivetting preteen tapper Luke Spring. (This number was added to the show for the Broadway opening, and is not on the previously-recorded commercial CD.)

Tony or no, A Christmas Story and Dogfight suggest that Pasek and Paul will score big before they hit thirty.

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This Time [LM&MP]

Eclectic vocal albums featuring reimagined versions of pop music blending elements of jazz, soul and rock do not fall within the regular scope of this column — unless there are extenuating circumstances, that is. The extenuating circumstance in this particular case is the vocalist in question, one Lindsay Mendez. Yes, the wallflower from Dogfight who so compellingly sang her heart out at Second Stage and on the CD above. Mendez joins with pianist Marco Paguia for This Time to good effect. Among other things, it demonstrates that Mendez sings and swings in a manner that you wouldn't necessarily expect from her performances in Godspell and Dogfight.

For another taste of Mendez, you can currently check out her Elphaba at the Gershwin. You can also see Klena, her suitor in Dogfight, as Fiyero; the pair just went into Wicked this week. Apparently Joe Mantello, director of both musicals, thinks they are pretty special.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)