Having done two Broadway favorites, I thought I’d do a change of pace and go to the world of Off-Broadway. If you’re wondering what the difference is, it’s based on seating capacity. A Broadway theater must have 500 or more seats, while an Off-Broadway house must have between 100 and 499. As a result Off-Broadway shows tend to be more intimate, and since there’s less financial risk, they’re often more experimental as well, leading to atypical productions that wouldn’t be seen on the Main Stem, such as the next musical in this series, Dogfight.
Authors: Book by Peter Duchan, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Based on the 1991 film of the same name.
History: Opened Off-Broadway in 2012, to rave reviews, and won two Lucille Lortel Awards (for Off-Broadway productions), including Outstanding Musical.
Synopsis: On a bus bound for San Francisco in 1967, Eddie Birdlace, a U.S. marine just back from Vietnam flashes back to the last time he went there—November 1963, just before the JFK assassination. He and his fellow marines, including Bernstein and Boland, who with Birdlace call each other “The Three Bees,” are about to be shipped off the next day and decide to have a wild night on the town, including a “dogfight”—a ritual where each marine puts $50 in the pot, which goes to whoever brings the ugliest date. Birdlace invites Rose, an awkward and chubby waitress, who is thrilled to have her first date. Meanwhile Boland defies the rules of the dogfight by hiring Marcy, a prostitute with missing teeth. When Birdlace and Rose arrive he has second thoughts but Rose thinks he’s embarrassed to be seen with her, leaving him no choice but to go ahead. Eventually Rose finds out from Marcy about the dogfight, and walks out on Birdlace, ashamed for having believed him.
As the marines continue their debauchery Bernstein coerces a prostitute into serving him after she’s decided to call it a night. Birdlace leaves in disgust and heads back to Rose, apologizing and offering to take her out to dinner. Though hurt, she agrees. As they get to know each other better Rose decides not to let others define her by her appearance, and the two of them spend the night at her place.
When Birdlace gets ready to leave the next morning she gives him her address. When he confronts Boland about cheating in the dogfight, Boland demands his silence in return for keeping mum about Birdlace’s date with Rose. Birdlace succumbs to peer pressure and tears up Rose’s address. In Vietnam Birdlace sees Boland and Bernstein killed in action. Back in the present, Birdlace, broken and receiving no hero’s welcome, finds Rose and succumbs to his feelings, accepting her compassion.
Cast Size: At least seven men and four women.
My Personal Take: Dogfight is at once unsettling and heartfelt, displaying macho insensitivity as well as genuine warmth. It was smart to start by showing Birdlace after he’d returned from Vietnam, so we’d empathize with him instead of being expected right off the bat to root for a much of macho meatheads. Yet we see this appalling behavior as a product of their conditioning—they dehumanize women like they’ve been trained to dehumanize the enemy. Not that this excuses them, of course, as their behavior is not celebrated in the least. But even though the marines are, to put it mildly, jerks, we feel for them knowing that they don’t know the danger they’ll face in Vietnam, just like when Rose decides on a dress without knowing what she’s in for. The whole story is about the loss of innocence, which is why most of the action takes place on November 21, 1963—the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Yet we are ultimately not demoralized, but moved by Rose’s kindness, which triumphs after Birdlace no longer has his buddies nor confidence to support him.
The period-appropriate folk-rock score helps, matching the mood as well as Rose’s folk interests and aspirations, and has some truly beautiful moments, especially during “Give Way” and “Before It’s Over.” Overall, this is a show with deep emotional impact that will stay with the audience for a while, and just like Rose, is characterized by inner beauty.
Put On This Musical If: You’re in a college theatre program looking for a leading part for a plus-sized actress.
Things to Consider: This is a good choice for colleges, especially in this age where toxic masculinity is finally getting called out. Yet with all the harsh language (which leads to a funny moment in the restaurant scene), this is not appropriate for children, nor is it meant for those who prefer to see members of the armed forces depicted as heroes. The actress playing Rose should be somewhat overweight (not mandatory but when the other marines call her a “blimp” and she describes herself as “a lonely, pathetic, ugly fat girl” it wouldn’t make sense ) and comfortable enough with her body to change clothes onstage. Plus she should be able to play guitar at a beginner level. You’ll also have to come up with a dental prosthetic to make Marcy appear toothless.
Though the show’s second Lucille Lortel award was for best choreography, the dancing is only minimal. You’ won’t need more than slow dancing and marching.
Different Versions/Sequels and Prequels: None.
Licensing Rights: Music Theatre International.
Next time, I’ll be looking at a 1990s Broadway hit that deals with homosexuality and AIDS.
Sorry, it’s not Rent. It’s Falsettos.