Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Interview: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul & Peter Duchan

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan are the writing team behind Dogfight. Based on the 1991 movie of the same name, Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012, winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

Renowned producer Danielle Tarento has brought the show to London where it will receive its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse. The production officially opens tonight (Wednesday 13th August) and runs until Saturday 13th September.

November 21, 1963. The night before their deployment to Vietnam, three young Marines set out for one final boys’ night of debauchery. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, the unassuming and idealistic waitress he enlists to win a cruel bet, she rewrites the rules of the game and opens his eyes to what really matters in life.

Peter Duchan (Book) is best known for co-writing the film Breaking Upwards. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Music & Lyrics) have been a composing team since meeting in college. In 2007 they were the youngest ever recipients of the Jonathan Larson Award - named after the late Rent composer - that honours achievement by composers, lyricists and librettists. 

Pasek and Paul made their Broadway debut last year with A Christmas Story, which received three Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, as well as six Drama Desk Award nominations including Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Music. Their other stage musicals include Edges and James and the Giant Peach. They composed several original songs for the second season of the Broadway TV drama Smash.

Yesterday I met with the three American writers at the Southwark Playhouse ahead of them seeing the London production of their musical for the first time…

Dogfight’s journey has been incredible. The show was so well received in New York and there was tremendous excitement when the UK premiere was announced. Have you had a chance to take it all in?

Peter Duchan: It feels like the show has taken on a new life in the last six months. The experience of creating the show, writing it and doing it in New York was wonderful and beyond anything I ever dreamed of, but – we were just talking about this recently – the reaction from beyond the small amount of people who saw it in New York has been really cool. It’s been amazing to see it take on this future life and I just hope it keeps going [laughs]!

Benj Pasek: I think when we began writing it we were just thrilled that anybody produced it and that people got excited about it when the production was on. There were teenagers who would come and be so excited about seeing the show… and then it closed and we were like ‘oh, that was a beautiful experience’ because it was all of our New York City debuts. Then we were lucky that the cast album came out and there seemed to be rejuvenation. I guess from that people maybe heard about it from across the pond, but this whole chapter is so unexpected and thrilling! I mean this is London theatre which, for us, is like the highest level you can go outside of New York. It’s an amazing place to have a show, so we just can’t believe that we’re in London about to see a show of ours have its UK premiere! It’s the big time!

PD: It’s a dream come true!

How involved have you been?

Justin Paul: They’ve been keeping us up to date via email and checking in after each week. I think aside from the brief reports and updates we’re excited to be here and to find out what’s been happening and to be surprised by it!

And I imagine when the show opened off-Broadway you were constantly tweaking it and working on things?

JP: Things were changing every day. All through rehearsals and previews we were re-writing and re-shaping things right up until the opening. That time was when we were most involved.

How do you feel watching your work being performed? 

JP: I know that for me, regardless of the actual quality of it, it’s always a sort of horrifying experience [laughs], just because you’re always judging what you’ve written. Even if it’s great it makes me want to crawl out of my skin! It’s also really thrilling. I can’t believe that I’ve come to London to see people perform something that I made up… like… in my living room. That’s a really crazy phenomenon! It’s awesome! 

BP: All three of us would sit in Peter’s office creating the show and now the fact that people we just met - literally five minutes ago - are going to be saying these words Peter came up with and singing these melodies is just surreal to us!

The Southwark Playhouse is so renowned and provides a totally unique experience for audiences as it’s so intimate. How do you think the material you wrote will lend itself to the smaller space?

JP: We’re about to find out I guess [all three laugh]! I would guess rather well because it is really a character study about two people and how a really small moment or interaction can have a large affect and impact on someone. I think it’s a raw story and being intimate will serve it really well.

Peter Duchan,  Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

BP: It holds up a mirror and asks tough questions about who we are as a society and what kind of people we are and if we were in this position what would we do. I personally believe that having intimacy with this experience is really going to help the show rather than hurt it. There are rousing moments in the musical, but it’s not a show that is reliant on big spectacle or production numbers. It really is about these two people coming together.

JP: There’s also a real intimacy to the film that the show is based on, so I think some of that will be recaptured in this production. 

Justin and Benj, neither of you had seen the film before Peter suggested the three of you could turn it into a musical. What were your first impressions when he presented you with the idea?

BP: Peter brought the DVD and we just read the back description and were like, “This is an amazing idea!” He said, “I can vouch for this and tell you that it’s good, but you haven’t even watched the movie!” We of course watched it once we had started working on it [laughs], but we obviously trusted Peter. What was so smart about what he brought to the table was that this girl is asked out for the wrong reasons, so we immediately have this feeling of being hurt for a girl we don’t know. We tell audiences who are seeing the show for the first time that it can be unsettling when your heart breaks for a girl you don’t know. For us that was a very attractive quality because people are going to be rooting for a character and identifying with them emotionally – in a musical that’s a great place to start. 

What will people feel as they leave the theatre?

PD: Hopefully people won’t just relate to Rose. When we were writing it we thought about how there is a little bit of Rose in everyone, but as we kept going we realised there’s also a little bit of Eddie in each of us too – we’ve all been bullied and we’ve all done the bullying. I hope people will get to see all sides of that and come away questioning how they related to it as well as having had a cathartic theatrical experience.

JP: There are moments which are tough to watch, but in a good way. It’s unsettling but ultimately redemptive, so hopefully people will go through it all – feeling unsettled, convicted and redeemed.

How would you describe the music?

JP: We wanted to write a theatrical score and decided we didn’t want to write just like a straight pastiche score; we didn’t want it to just be all 60s knock off songs, but at the same time we wanted to take elements of that era – particularly early 60s folk music because that’s a great interest of Rose’s. So we wrote the score that we wanted to write that best served the story and just filtered it through the sounds of that era – there’s a little bit of Rock ‘n’ Roll, folk acoustic influences but there are theatre songs too! 

Just from sitting here and talking to you for ten minutes I can feel your passion for this show. Could you all feel this passion throughout the writing process?

JP: [jokingly] Every day we would wake up and would be like “I’m alive and I love theatre!” [all three laugh], but seriously out of all the projects Ben and I have worked on – I can’t speak for Peter…

PD: I’m sure I’ll agree!

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

JP: …this is something we really chose to do. Sometimes when you’re a writer people approach you with ideas and you’re like, “Ok, I’m sure I can find a way to do that”, but for all of us this collaboration was something we decided we wanted to do. We wanted to champion it ourselves rather than having someone pushing us to write. Obviously Peter brought it to us, but we all wanted to make this piece into something which fuelled a real love and desire to create it. 

PD: It was an exciting collaboration and an exciting process!

BP: Beyond the three of us we had an amazing creative team working on our production off-Broadway. It was exciting to be working with such talented people, there were times when we thought, “I can’t believe they’re working on this show with us!”

PD: Even from a distance it’s been cool to feel the passion that everyone involved has, it’s really moving!

BP: Something else about this show is that the protagonist isn’t a traditional protagonist. It’s been our experience that people who don’t traditionally get to star in a musical, especially for the female role, really get a chance to play a much more dynamic character. I’m sure it helps people feel ownership over the role in a way that I think is really helpful and adds to the passion of the piece.

All three of you have had incredible, whirlwind years. What have been some of your highlights?

BP: Well we literally just walked up to this playhouse in London and saw a big poster for our show in a city where we don’t know that many people! This producer greeted us with open arms and, aside from email correspondence, we had never met her before and… like… there’s a huge poster with our names on it in London! There have been a few ‘pinch me’ moments, but this has to be one of them!

JP: Obviously the Tony Awards are like the World Series or Super Bowl for us, they are everything. I had never been to the Tony Awards previously, so getting to go as a nominee was like… I don’t know! If I could go every year… I would!

BP: I had heard people poop the Tonys and said “oh it’s so long and boring”, but it was the most magical night I have ever been a part of! I know a lot of that is to do with the fact we got to be there with our show called A Christmas Story. There were all these people who are our heroes, as theatre writers and as theatre lovers all packed into the same room with show after show performing… it is a magical night every year so to get to go once was amazing, I’m going to go back some day either way – even if I have to buy a ticket [laughs]! 

I have a feeling you won’t have to buy a ticket!

BP: Well, who knows?! 

And what’s this I hear about one of you freaking out when you met Idina Menzel backstage after If/Then?!

BP: Oh, that was me! So, especially during the Tonys period, we’ve had the chance to meet some incredible people – like Tom Hanks! I had met Idina Menzel once in passing before. I went to see If/Then and went backstage after where I met Idina Menzel. Above all, the show that got me into musical theatre was RENT. It came out when I was extremely impressionable [laughs] and it just became my obsession! So out of everyone I’ve met, when I saw Idina Menzel I literally lost the ability to speak! I was saying “You were… just… sss… ssooo great…” and repeating the same things and was just awkward and fidgety. She looked at me like I was going to have my s**t together, but I didn’t at all. Then afterwards I walked about four blocks and just lost control! I was like, “Ah did I say that ok? Was I acting really awkward?” She’s a huge hero and the musical theatre goddess so, I didn’t expect to, but I really freaked out. I felt like a huge dork! 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Dogfight runs at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 13th September 2014.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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