Tag Archives: Benj Pasek

Opinion: Dogfight – Misogynistic, Or Just A Show About Misogynists?

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. More “douche” than a French shower! Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Anyone who has seen Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse, or even been aware of it, will also be aware of the divisive twitter it’s gotten critics in. Some, like myself, loved the show, whilst others found it to be offensive in it’s apparent excusing of misogyny. So, I’ve decided to wade into the argument (late) with my own thoughts as the show closed at the weekend.

Where’s the Offence?

I was actually quite shocked to hear that some people had found the show abhorrent, even going as low as 2*s from The Evening Standard. I consider myself a male feminist, so was a little taken aback at the whole debate, and was panicked at the prospect that I missed something quite dire. I thought it was fantastic, and whilst my review wasn’t a full 5*s, I think there’s so much here that’s worth praising and was genuinely some of the best new musical theatre to have hit London in a long time.

Particularly, I loved Peter Duncan’s book, based on the film by the same name. Gone is the fairy tale/Hollywood transformation and shallow redemption of a protagonist bee-lining towards a happily-ever-after, and instead we get a tale that’s awkward and a resolution that’s rocky and incomplete. The number “First Date, Last Night” wonderfully encapsulates this less than perfect character development.

But I’ve been trying my hardest to think about what could possibly be offensive. The easiest thing I could find offensive were the marines themselves. I myself describe them as “odious” in my review. And I think that’s the point: you’re supposed to hate them. They’re chauvinistic pigs of the highest order, even going as far to rape a prostitute, forcing her to have sex against her will by using the threat of violence. I would loathe to meet anyone who didn’t find them deplorable! But just having them present and behaving such doesn’t mean this celebrates or excuses them, does it? At least, it shouldn’t.

What I think may enshrine this as a misogynistic show in some people’s minds is that they don’t get their just comeuppance. Eddie, on the cusp of a moment of self-awareness and self-respect, literally throws it away for pride and bully-boy camaraderie. He doesn’t learn, and it’s infuriating. But in the very last scene, we see Eddie return to San Francisco, and is embraced by Rose. There are two possible ways of interpreting this. Either we praise Rose for being a most forgiving, intelligent, and humanitarian character that sees the good in everyone and tries to educate them to being better people. Or we scold Rose as someone who suffers patriarchy, and/or is too shallow, cowardly, or stupid (!!!) to give Eddie the scorn he justly deserves: thus misogyny wins.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Other Misogynistic Theatre

Though I can see at least one way of interpreting Dogfight as misogynistic, what makes me titter about this debate is that there is far more misogynistic theatre out there. For example, the solid but lengthy recent musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles isn’t exactly a feminist war-cry. The whole crux of Hardy’s story is, “patriarchy sucks, but there’s bugger all you can do except die by it,” which is probably more uneasy to accept than Eddie’s difficulty in changing into a civil citizen. Then there’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Whilst the last thing I want to do is wander into the debate surrounding people who chose to stay with their abusive partners, neither do I wish to belittle their reasons, I find this a bigger excuse for misogyny (and domestic violence) than Dogfight. Also, there’s the production that the fringe forgot, The Last Ever Musical, which was out-rightly the most offensive and misogynistic thing I’ve ever seen. Two hours of singing songs and making schoolboy jokes about menstruation almost had me storming out of the theatre and forfeiting my review because I was so aghast.

So why has Dogfight received the brunt of criticism? I think it’s because the misogyny here is so explicit; it’s not shielded away from, and shocks because of this. In contrast, a quite easy way of looking at Carousel is that it’s a piece exploring difficulty in consoling love and violence, dressed in some great music and a lot of high-romantic ideas. But Dogfight is balls-out outrageous regarding the disrespect the marines have for women. It’s far more visible, therefore easier to be offended by it.

Male v Female?

The majority of critics who loves the show have been male, and the majority of critics who disliked the show were female. But this is no means, “Oh, well that explains it!” It’s a red herring, if anything, and probably says more about male critics than it does female. But is this really a male v female situation? I think not. It’s more of how a person, regardless of gender, interprets the show. Indeed, there are plenty of females who see the show in a similar light as I and many others.

Worth reading is Rebecca Trehearn’s, who plays Marcy, blog post that brilliantly tackles the debate: one of the most intelligent and objective looks at the argument, where she ultimately takes a positive view of the show. But I also took the time to ask one of the most prominent female theatrical figures in London for her views, who also just happens to be Dogfight’s producer: Danielle Tarento.

“I’ve been astounded by [the debate], to be frank,” claims Tarento. “Firstly, just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean that a) it doesn’t exist or b) that we shouldn’t look at it. And secondly, surely the show is the opposite of this! Yes, the boys behave badly, but in each instance the girls come out on top. Yes, there was bravado and bad behaviour but to hide the fear and ignorance and to bond as a group. That may not make it right, but that’s no reason not to not confront it.”

Yet I want to do is use Tarento’s words to justify a dismissal of those who think otherwise. As much as I hate the phrase, “check your privilege,” I think it’s important here. I’m a white(ish) lower middle-class male. I am probably going to default to a more to a rosy view of the show than others with less privilege than I, and that’s something I need to bear in mind. Therefore, even with Tarneto’s backing, I recognise that I may not be the best person to have an opinion on the issue. Thus, I’ve actually found my rethinking of how I view and interpret the show a thoughtful experience as a result of this debate.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Critical Miss

Elsewhere, I think too many people have looked to put weight their own, and only their own, opinions on the subject. Particularly, Paul Taylor and Mark Shenton (I use these as two as of the most prominent current critical voices) were quick to come to the show’s defence and fend off the cries of misogyny, neglecting to try to actively engage in their articles with those who oppose their thoughts, even missing a trick in getting in contact with any authoritative females voices, such as Tarento.

I’m disappointed with their responses. Taylor ultimately says that people should see it again and try to see it as not a misogynistic piece, suggesting they “resisted” the first time around, thus implying there isn’t any other viable way to interpret Dogfight. Shenton, though a little more balanced, concluded that, “perhaps some have proved blind to what the show is trying to show.” Whilst I agree that people have seen something quite different to what Tarento has said about her vision in her own words, I think saying that they’re “blind” is a bit too dismissive. I think Taylor and Shenton’s defence of the show is too defensive which hasn’t helped the discussion. Even if difficult to understand and/or agree, these dissents are at worst interesting and at best important, and shouldn’t be shrugged off with such ferocity. Misogyny in entertainment should be an important discussion, and one approached without such polemic dialogue.

The Real Question

Whilst I think it’s right that we’re having this debate, and I think it’s right that people have seen it the way they have, I think the real question is whether audiences should be sheltered. Should producers be putting on shows that offend?

Offence is something that Tarento isn’t worried about. I asked her what she would do if she was given a piece that was potentially offensive. Although being very clear that she does not find Dogfight offensive, she says, that:

Should I actively be choosing a show because of its potential to offend, I would serve the text as honestly and as fully as possible by giving it the best possible production and letting the audience decide.”

As Tarento’s response shows, theatre should challenge and it is up to us to take whatever we will from it. Producers and directors shouldn’t shy away from putting on shows that may offend, within reason and proper context, especially if they spark much needed debates such as this one. But in doing so audiences and critics should not scoff at the fact that something some people might be offended, even if it didn’t offend them: this approach only stymies debate.

In summary, to me Dogfight is just a show about misogynists, and not a show that is misogynistic. I think the fact that Eddie and his marines are hideous human beings, really colours the show and makes it different and engaging, especially as it doesn’t end the way we’d like it to. But just because you disagree, does not make your opinion invalid. In fact, I’m more than interested to hear what you think, and have my own perceptions of the show challenged.

Dogfight played at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD between 8 August – 13 September 2014.


Musical Review: Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A forceful and energetic production of a surprising and captivating musical.

Overview

Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Peter Duchan (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) won acclaim Off-Broadway. Now, Danielle Tarento and her multi-award winning team brings the production to Europe for the first time.

US Marine Eddie is on his last night out with his comrades in San Francisco before being shipped off to Vietnam. They put together a “Dogfight” – where each marine competes to bring a date to a party, and the marine with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie thinks he’s on to a winner with Rose, but quickly sees past her frumpy veneer and connects with her sweet and docile personality. Remorsefulness of his actions, can he undo the hurt he’s caused her before he faces the horrors of ’63?

Book

Duchan’s adaptation of the film manages to combine all of it’s main elements, but also expands it to add more narrative substance and intelligence on what is otherwise a bit of a whistle-stop and slightly unbelievable story. Particularly, his lambaste of military hubris has created one of the most instantly unlikable protagonists on the stage. Brash, oversexed, and grossly arrogant, Eddie and his band of “B”s are as odious as they come. Though setting-up a rather easy juxtaposition between Eddie and Rose, Duchan exploits the vast room to explore a less direct, more humorous, heartfelt, and satisfying redemption for Eddie. There’s no fairytale transformation, but a rough and bumpy gradual change that is entertainingly convincing.

Furthermore, Duchan also manages to brutally bring the futility and tragedy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the stage, as well as the ire it garnered from the American public. It explores a real sense of loss and regret that crescendos to a most devastating finale, making it brutally moving as well as adorably sweet.

The only criticism is that, having penned such a high-octane and riotous first act, Act II does slump as the narrative becomes less hectic and more tender. But thankfully, you never lose engagement with the show and are with it all the way to the end, even though you want it to move just a little quicker and as giddy as Act I during the second half.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Music and Lyrics

It’s easy to compare the score to Spring Awakening, especially as there have been many poor imitations since. Composers and lyricists Pasek and Paul certainly following suit with writing a score in this very American modern rock musical in style; in many ways is very comparable to Duncan Sheik’s masterpiece. However, just when you think you’ve heard it all before, Pasek and Paul put in twists in melody, style, timbre, and pace that prick up you ears and reel you right in. There are so many surprises in the music that despite it being very definite of genre,  it’s one of the freshest and original scores to come from America in a long time.

Their orchestrations and choral harmonies are part of the excitement they build into their work. Whilst these intriguing intricacies are rich and rousing, they are always used sparingly and only when it is best suited. The result is an incredibly dynamic score that goes from riotous to tender and lyrical from moment to moment, tossing the audience from wonderment to arousal with masterful strokes.

Lyrically, Pasek and Paul have an incredible grasp on language. The rhymes are seldom obvious, and words are toyed and played about with intelligent and immense wit. Most importantly, they manage to embrace a very real essence of Duchan’s characters. Flits of very homely and unembellished personality comes through every now and then, cutting through the clever language and smarts, giving us flashes of real and believable charisma. An example is Rose quipping, mid-ballad, about the bad choice in dress colour during “Pretty Funny”, which is otherwise one of the most lilting and heartbreaking songs in the whole score. Elsewhere, nothing ever feels silly, clumsy, or forced in the score. Pasek and Paul have the ability to write songs fluidly as if everyday chatter, and it’s astonishing.

Production and Direction

Tarento has done it again, despite not working with her regular partner in crime, Thom Southerland, who is in New York looking after the transfer of Titanic: The MusicalBut director, Matt Ryan, works just as well with Tarento and the rest of the team to create what is another superb production for the Southwark Playhouse. Lee Newby’s set evoking the Golden Gate Bridge sets the scene with whimsy and charm, whilst also giving the orchestra somewhere to sit and a higher level for Ryan to work with at points. But it’s main purpose is to create a sizeable thrust area as somewhere for the bulk of the action takes place. Though there’s little else by way of scenery, Newby’s set allows  Ryan to direct the show in a manner that simply allows the musical itself to do the talking, rather than the production.

Other noticeable aspects of the production is Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography. It’s as high-voltage, slick, and lively as they come. Given the relatively limited space has by no means contained Pankhurst either. Though during the large chorus numbers when there’s limited space for the 11-strong cast as there is, the performance area is filled to the brim but with an exhilarating amount of intricate moves fittingly together like some extraordinary human-Difference Engine. Newby’s attention to detail with the props and costume, too, is something of note. Laura Jane Matthewson, playing Rose, is by far an “ugly” creature, but Newby still managesd to find what is quite possibly the most hideous dress to have ever graced the stage to exaggerate Rose’s frumpiness, making Matthewson look less like Alice in Wonderland and more like Alice in Primark!

Whilst Ryan fills the space action and energy around the various props that are brought in, there are times where he doesn’t quite handle the thrust space entirely well. If you’re sat on the sides you’ll see mostly a character’s back for significant periods of times. There are some very basic directional attempts to try and overcome this, such as sing to this side first then turn and sing to this side, but it’s still a bit of irk to be left to admire an actors back pocket for too long. Whilst it really is difficult to avoid completely, these moments could probably be contained and limited a bit better.

The only other criticism is the sound levels. There are more than a few moments where it’s difficult to hear Pasek and Paul’s great lyrics because it’s drowned out by the level of the band. It’s difficult to know whether this is because of an inability to adjust the sound properly or because of the problems that come with the intimate size of the venue. Whilst the band and the performers are all mic-ed up, part of the problem is that the audience are still getting the sound of the natural acoustic sound that the band makes. This is something which isn’t necessary going to be picked up by the sound engineers who will be listening mostly to just what’s being picked up by the mics. But hopefully this will be corrected in the next few performances because, unless you’re already familiar with the score, you miss out on some of the brilliance of the songs.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Cast

Tarento has managed to find a superlative cast for the production. Making her debut, Matthewson is sensational. Not only has she got a voice that is both soft and powerful at the same time, she portrays Rose in such a sweet and naive manner that it’s impossible not to love her. See draws instant empathy from the audience making you cheer her on every step of the way, as well as struggle to get through “Pretty Funny” with anything less than a tear in your eye.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie is also absolutely fantastic. His ability to make every song his own is nothing short of marvellous, never being afraid to break from singing and actually act moments of a number. His big solo, “Come Back”, is not only an apex of the show but the height of his performance. He sings it with a crushing and deafening force that is worthy of every possible accolade that can be thrown at him.

Special mention must go to Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy, too. Her duet with Matthewson in “Dogfight” was sang with an incredible rawness and spite that made the number absolutely exhilarating.

The rest of the supporting cast are also brilliant, throwing every inch of energy they can muster into the show to create a piece of theatre that has the Southwark Playhouse vibrating with force. No-one sings flat or sharp, no-one feels like they’re dragging their feet, and everyone feels as integral and vital to the production as the show’s leads.

Verdict

Tarento has once again demonstrated that she’s a formidable producer to be reckoned with, with an exceptional cast and production behind her. Plus, this is a new American musical that could only have been fresher and more original if it came foil-packed. This production absolutely blows the mundane fare of Theatreland clear out of the water, and should have the West End shaking in it’s boots. A barnstorming and phenomenal show.

Dogfight plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, utnil 13 September 2014. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). TO book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.


News: FREE Track From New Musical “Dogfight”

dogfight-poster-3Southwark Playhouse and Danielle Tarento have released a recording of “Pretty Funny” on YouTube ahead of  the upcoming European premier of award-winning musical, Dogfight, based on the 1991 movie of the same name.

After it’s great success off-Broadway, the producer behind the Southwark Playhouse’s most notable hits (Parade, Victor/Victoria, and Titanic – which transferred to New York) is bringing the Lucille Lortel 2013 Awards “Outstanding Musical” to London for six weeks only.

With music and lyrics by duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Time Out New York have described the score as, “Easily the most delicate, surprising, musically satisfying score since Spring Awakening.” In this track sung by lead Laura Jane Matthewson, who will play Rose in the London production, it’s easy to see why. Lilting and bittersweet with a rousing and unexpected middle-eight, if “Pretty Funny” is anything to go by, the rest of the score should be fantastic; especially if Matthewson brings the same heartfelt performance to the show that she demonstrates on YouTube.

Until the show opens, this should keep you going for a while, although the full original off-Broadway cast recording is available on Spotify. Given Tarento’s track record with both the Southwark Playhouse and the Menier Chocolate Factory, this will undoubtedly be a summer show not to be missed.

Dogfight will play at Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, from 8 August – 13 September 2014. Preview tickets (8-12 August) are £12. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.