Don’t let the title fool you, this DogFight has nothing to do with fighter planes battling it out in the skies, or some cruel sporting event featuring man’s best friend. Instead, this Benj Pasek and Justin Paul musical, based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, is something straight out of the urban dictionary.
Vancouver’s Semper Fi Collective presents Dogfight in March. In this Q&A we find out more from director Chris Lam.
Q[/dropcap]Tell us about Dogfight.
The basic premise of the show is we follow three marines on the eve of their departure to Vietnam, they engage in the titular game, trying to find the “ugliest” date and bring her to the party, as part of a wager. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue, but in the second half we focus on the story of one Marine and one date as they make an interesting connection.
Q[/dropcap]How closely does it follow the plot of the 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor?
The musical adaptation is fairly faithful. There are some lines of dialogue lifted from the film, a few amalgamations of characters, and added sequences that give us opportunity to get into the inner, emotional lives of our characters. But the essentially the central story of Rose and Eddie is still intact.
Q[/dropcap]What was it about film that you think Pasek, Paul and Duchan saw as an opportunity to make it into a musical?
It didn’t surprise me how well this worked as a musical. Much of the score is pastiche, but we are talking about 60’s folk music and rock and roll, and the composers have written beautiful self-contained song stories. Only in a musical, is there license to let the actors express emotions in their most heightened moments. And Pasek and Paul have taken the time to really make a connective tissue with music to drive narrative. Musically, the world of the marines, is hard, percussive, rock and roll and Rose is the world of lyrical folk. There are a few surprises, including a Sondheim-esque number and titular power song.
Q[/dropcap]What was it about Dogfight that got you interested in wanting to direct the show?
The movie. I had seen a copy of the film years before I had heard of the musical, but it annoys me that there a lot of musical adaptations of films, and my opinion didn’t change until I heard the first song, “Pretty Funny” that changed it for me.
A year and half ago, I approached Awkward Stage Productions with a proposal to do Dogfight as part of their seed project. A couple of months later they committed to the project and I started getting into pre-planning and rehearsals and the show went up around May 2015. From what I heard it was well received and financially it did well. I do have to thank Andy Toth and Sandra Herd for the opportunity and cut to January 2016, the musical wins five Ovation Awards—one for myself and one for Best Production. So I felt like I had done something right, or that Vancouver audiences were hungry to see it.
Cut to now, I’m doing it again, and I was hesitant to do it again, but there was an idea to do this in rep with another musical, but that panned out and I was left with do I do this or not. I said yes. This time I’m fully producing it and directing and musically staging it. I love story. I love these characters, and I emotionally connect with them so much, plus there were opportunities to stage it in a different way.
Q[/dropcap]You’ve double cast the show with alternating actors playing the roles each night. Why did you decide on this format?
This was a pure marketing opportunity, but not entirely the only reason, I felt like there were a few actors who could definitely pull this off, and it was great to see other actors interpret these roles and work with some new people.
Q[/dropcap]You’re also cast the show in a non-traditional way, with diversity. What was the impetus for the cross-cultural casting?
I’m interested in seeing Interracial relationships on stage or films and I think in some political way, the l layers of meaning to the historical background of the play, and how one can interpret stories in a racial consciousness of 2016, and is that story’s universality conveyed is something I was trying bridge.
Q[/dropcap]Does the non-traditional casting add a new dimension to show or is it solely aimed at the diversity question that has been discussed recently in Vancouver’s theatre community?
Right now, I’m all for putting a different face to roles that traditionally wouldn’t be seen otherwise. In the case of this production, I’m returning to an aesthetic I started with my production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and to make a personal identification with the stories by casting the leads Asian as a point of inspiration (Amanda Sum and Justin Lapena), and partner them with someone non-Asian (Sara Vickruck and Staurt Barkley), For me, it was great to find actors who could meet the demands of the score, be challenged, and be given an opportunity that they wouldn’t have.
Q[/dropcap]What is the play trying to say?
There are many themes running through Dogfight—one being the power of compassion, truths and deceptions, perception, and identity to name a few. What I find interesting about this show is you put two people who don’t really belong together, and by the end make a meaningful human connection.