In “Dogfight,” the new musical at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, the protagonists hardly “meet cute.” The play’s premise is pretty ugly, in fact: While waiting to be shipped out to Vietnam from San Francisco in 1963, a group of Marines decide to place $50 bets in a large pool. The winner? The jarhead who can bring the most unnattractive date to a dance party. Hence the title.
This landmine-packed territory has been expertly navigated by a crack team of Broadway veterans — director Joe Mantello (“Wicked”) and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”) — in league with a trio of twenty-something neophytes: librettist Peter Duchan and the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The musical is based on a 1991 Nancy Savoca film written by Bob Comfort and starring River Phoenix, as an emotionally stunted Marine, and Lili Taylor, as the empathetic young woman who surprisingly touches his heart. In the musical version, the roles are played by Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena, respectively.
Says Duchan: “In a lot of ways, our show is about a bullshit artist who learns to tell the truth, and I think a lot of us have experienced that arc in our own lives.” It fell to Duchan, as the book writer of the musical, to recreate the testosterone-fueled and callous tribal rites of a tragic era far removed from his middle-class upbringing in Westport, Connecticut. Describing himself as a lover of musicals which “baldly wear their heart on their sleeve,” Duchan spoke with us about how he and his colleagues managed to balance those romantic impulses with the dark and poignant story at the heart of “Dogfight.”
When you were growing up, what musicals did you admire that had an impact on how you approached “Dogfight”?
I had a great exposure to classic musicals like “Annie,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “South Pacific,” but as I came of age and started coming into the city on my own, I was attracted to shows like “Parade,” “The Wild Party,” and “Caroline, or Change” — shows which tested the boundaries of what a musical could be. It’s adolescence and so it’s about rebellion in its own way.
“Parade,” “The Wild Party,” and “Caroline, or Change” — You just mentioned shows that were commercial and even critical failures.
And yet I’d argue that all these shows had an enormous impact on my generation, not necessarily as theater-goers but as theater practitioners. They’re done a tremendous amount at colleges all over the country.
They also deal with difficult subject matter. Is that what attracted you to adapting “Dogfight” into a musical?
Absolutely. The premise is something which audiences and some critics have a problem with. But we were immediately drawn to the emotional power of the story. These guys are mean and what allows them the ability to treat women in that way, with a lack of empathy, is exactly what they are being asked by their country to do in order to get the job done [in Vietnam]. And the premise is set up in a way that allows the show to be both big and small.
What do you mean?
On one level, it is a small, intimate story about this ordinary couple, Eddie and Rose. But on the other hand, because we have hindsight, we see the germs of a great cultural change. What really helped me write and expand the character of Rose was to think about who she was and what messages she was getting from the culture at large. For example, the idea of pacifism and the burgeoning folk music scene, songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” predates the Vietnam War. She’s really this fun mishmash of her own self-awareness, the ways in which she could make herself beautiful from the inside out, versus the mainstream culture telling her how unattractive she is.
Was it much harder to crack the character of Eddie, given that he’s so repressed in feeling?
Definitely. Because when he actually starts to feel something, he grows quiet. In the film, there’s the scene in which River Phoenix starts to think maybe he shouldn’t take Rose into that party. The camera comes in for a close-up. How do you translate that into theatrical terms? And that took years of discussion. The goal was to put the audience into Eddie’s shoes, so that the audience starts to realize something about Eddie that he himself may not know.
Well, there was a point we made Eddie more “clear” about what he was doing. And Joe [Mantello] kept saying, “He’s not suddenly a different person — let’s allow for some complexity here.”Eddie doesn’t say to himself, “I am good person and this is beneath me.” He’s simply having a pang of conscience. Something doesn’t feel right about what he’s doing to Rose. He then goes for a quick solution and that doesn’t work. And so he goes to another solution which is to get drunk and angry. What Eddie is actually experiencing at that moment is beyond his emotional articulation.
Does it relate to what you said before, that soldiers, in their training, must learn to divorce themselves from human feeling to get the job done?
Yes. Eddie keeps trying to push Rose away. She keeps becoming more and more human to him and he has to keep her an abstraction. All the boys have to do that in order to be able to treat the women the way they do. And that is what they will have to do with the enemy. The more Eddie gets to know Rose, the more troubled he becomes. And that changes the game for him.
Why does she accept Eddie’s apology?
That also led to ample discussion among all of us because that scene is not in the movie. And we had to ask the question. And what came out of those discussions is her line to him, “’Cause if I didn't, I'd just be what you thought I was. A lonely, pathetic, ugly fat girl. That's all I'd be.” We were really beating our heads against the wall until we realized that she had to prove to herself that she could do this, that it was crucial to her own self-empowerment.
Were you ever tempted to censor yourself on how far you could go?
Early on, we learned that a little bit of boys being mean goes a long way. But there are scenes we can’t avoid telling because they are the story. I’m glad we don’t sugarcoat it. Some people have to look away at certain point and people have expressed to me that it makes them feel uncomfortable. But if you’re able to feel uncomfortable that means that your feeling something. That means we’re doing our job. You don’t have to understand or know every decision that Eddie makes. You just have to understand the shape of the feelings of the journey he goes on.