"I knew if I were ever to leave Godspell, which I loved so much, it would have to be for something really spectacular," recalls Lindsay Mendez, who became the second ensemble member to depart, after Hunter Parrish, when she played her final performance in the revival on May 20. "I left a huge part of myself there, but Dogfight felt like the opportunity of a lifetime."
Directed by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello, Dogfight world-premieres in July following previews from June 27 at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. Featuring a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ( A Christmas Story, The Musical!) and a book by Peter Duchan, the musical is based on a 1991 film starring Lili Taylor as Rose, a homely waitress who bonds with a handsome Marine before he ships off to Vietnam. The title refers to a party in which the Marines cruelly compete to invite the ugliest date. "The movie is so beautiful and dear," Mendez says, "but when I saw it, I thought, 'Of course this should be a musical. These characters so need to sing!'"
More familiar to New York audiences for her funnier, flashier work in Broadway's Everyday Rapture and Grease, Mendez says playing Rose is a daunting departure. "It's terrifying and yet so fun to flex my muscles in this totally different vein of theatre than I've done before," says the actress, who learned to play guitar for the part. "I've often had to belt insanely, but that's not the sound in this show, which lets me explore a whole other side of my voice and myself."
The character is also a departure from Mendez's vibrant personality and style, which is on full display when she performs locally with her jazz band. "Rose is a plain Jane with ill-fitting clothes because she doesn't care and doesn't know better," she explains. "She's awkward and shy, but she's not shy about her opinions and the way she sees the world; she's a forward-thinker for the early '60s. She's also a smart cookie who does what's right and doesn't let herself get stepped on in the end. I'm honored to give her a voice." In nurturing Rose, Mendez found unexpected inspiration in her idol-since-childhood, Judy Garland. "There's just no performer like her," Mendez gushes, "but I learned a lot from the fact that she never thought of herself as beautiful, which is something I've struggled with. Knowing those demons she battled, I was determined to make the most out of what I am. It doesn't matter what my size is or what my face looks like, I'm always going to go for it. That also applies to Rose, whom some people call ugly, but she's so beautiful inside, and you love her. It means the world to me to play a role like this for women and for myself, because I was this girl. I am this girl."