INTERVIEW: Pasek and Paul and Peter Duchan on Dogfight, Adaptations, and Contemporary Theater
Pasek and Paul have been well known names in American musical theatre for some time, thanks to the ongoing success of shows such as EDGES, along with their work on SMASH and even the recent OLD NAVY TV campaign. Their popularity in London continues to grow, with their 2012 musical DOGFIGHT receiving its European premiere at the off-West End Southwark Playhouse. Produced by Danielle Tarento, this brand new production has attracted a lot of attention from London audiences, many of whom will not be familiar with either the work or indeed the film on which it is based.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with the Dogfight creative team ahead of their London opening, to discuss their careers, thoughts on the industry and bringing their hugely successful musical across the pond.
DOH – DOM O’HANLON
BP – BENJ PASEK
JP – JUSTIN PAUL
PD – PETER DUCHAN
DOH: Tell me a bit about Dogfight’s journey from off-Broadway to off-West End.
JP: After the show played off-Broadway, it was definitely on our bucket list to have it play in London, but we had no direct way of making that happen.
BP: We have a friend who lives in New York who is a new producer and is friends with Danielle Tarento, and he was really instrumental in helping it all come together. We’re thrilled and so excited that this is getting a production. We don’t know as much as we should about London theatre, and once we began to learn about the venue, and the kind of shows that Danielle has produced, it feels like the perfect mix and perfect marriage. This seems like a place where really cool and really inventive things are happening and it’s a pleasure to be a part of.
DOH: As New Yorkers, what’s your perception on new musical theatre writing in London?
JP: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a new musical in London before. We’ve done a couple of concerts here, and I guess we always see London theatre as being of the highest caliber. It always feels like London knows something more that we don’t. As a writer, having your show play in London is something that you superficially aspire to. It sounds so fancy!
BP: It seems like there is a real appetite for new musicals in London and there is a real audience for work that isn’t just big blockbuster type musicals. It seems like smaller musicals are getting much more exposure and as new writers we really get to benefit from that.
DOH: We often see your names billed as ‘new’ composers. When do you think you’ll get to shake off that title, and does it matter?
JP: You mean when will we ‘emerge’ and when will we ‘up and come?’ You know I’m all for lowered expectations, so if I’m always thought of as ‘emerging’ and ‘up and coming’ I’ll always be fine with that. Much rather that than ‘veteran’ and it ends up not being as good as people expect! I guess at some point people will find it strange to call us ‘new’ – it’s about being part of a community of new writers and I think we are part of that, and we always will be until awesome younger people come along. Then we’ll have emerged!
DOH: Considering your work as a whole, how do you feel you have personally changed as writers, from say EDGES to DOGFIGHT?
BP: I think we’ve changed a lot and grown. If we haven’t please tell me…! For us, every show that we’ve worked on is about trying to write something different and one that comes out of a story and a group of characters that we’re drawn to. We’re never trying to write a particular ‘type’ of show – we try to write about characters that move us. Dogfight was the first show that we really got together with Peter and became the driving force behind making this a show, rather than a producer coming to us, this was a project we wanted to create and have artistic license and mold it to what we wanted it to be. It’s about trying to tell a different type of story and grow with each new thing we work on.
Edges for example, I don’t think we could write that now – it was a product of where we were at the time. We always said when we were at college, wouldn’t it be cool if people at other colleges were singing our songs, and now we hear that audition panels are sick of hearing our songs – that little dream has sort of come true for us.
DOH: You’re also incredibly young! I imagine to you it feels like your ‘journey’ has taken a long time, but do you ever feel in some ways it has been accelerated?
JP: It certainly feels like it has taken a long time, but we’re aware in many ways it has been accelerated. We’ve had a lot of luck and been connected to a lot of great people who have helped us along our path. None of these things would have happened on our own – it’s all about collaboration and people helping us grow and get to the next level.
PD: You guys have had a lot of opportunities, but at the same time you’ve been totally ready for each opportunity and able to grab it and do a good job.
JP: We always try to work ALL the time. It’s saying yes to too many things, having many things going at once because you know, some things always fall through but you just have to figure it out.
BP: We have been so lucky to start writing really at the time the Internet came out. That really has a lot to do with it. Facebook came out in 2004, we wrote Edges in 2005. We were lucky to be part of that first generation to have their songs available online. People seeing a live performance of one of our songs in concert or at a cabaret at the same time others could also see it on YouTube and it could spread in a new way, people can have access easier to new musicals.
JP: You can get your work out in such a new way. For example, people in London have heard about Dogfight thanks to the Internet, and that has really made it possible. So much of this stuff is working hard, being talented but more about people knowing you and knowing your stuff.
PD: Dogfight for example came about that way – you guys had written one song and performed it in a cabaret. We sent the one song and the idea for the show to a producer in New York and that was enough to be able to drum up interest with just a video of a song.
JP: The game has changed completely! Before you would have needed to make a demo CD, hire demo singers and such, but now you can film a concert – it is so much less expensive, so much less time consuming.
DOH: You mean to say it’s not like “Opening Doors”??
BP: No typewriter!
PD: But I think the spirit of “Opening Doors” is still there – just the technology has changed.
DOH: In bringing Dogfight to London, did you find yourself going back to the drawing board and looking and tweaks and changes?
JP: We had a decent size list of little tweaks throughout the score and script to make it ready for licensing. There have been no specific changes for this. That we know of!
PD: I have a list of things I never got to do with it! I sat there on the closing night of New York thinking I should have done this or that…
BP: There’s a great quote that says musicals are never finished, they’re just abandoned. At some stage you just have to let it go. If you continue to write it, you can end up changing things that shouldn’t be changed. After workshops and new productions you just have to step back and say that you can’t do any more.
PD: This is where it got to, it is what it is and we’re really proud of it.
DOH: Looking at the work you have already done, as well as your upcoming work, how do you find working with original ideas verses adapted sources such as films?
JP: We were excited about adapting Dogfight because it wasn’t a well-known film. We had the artistic freedom to make it what we wanted. I watched the movie maybe once throughout the whole writing time – we used it as building blocks, but once it became our show we really did what we needed to do to make it work on stage – we felt a lot of freedom.
PD: You hear horror stories from people adapting that the owners, the widow or widower for example, start meddling. We didn’t have any of those experiences, that was so great. Warner Brothers were really hands off. It was our show.
JP: It’s great having a film that isn’t so well known – audiences aren’t waiting for that one line for example. We could treat it like original material.
PD: The rights folks were actually so pleased we were doing something with the story!
JP: In this case the screenplay and the spoken dialogue for the movie were actually very different. (Asking Peter) How do you know when to go off book as it were and be different to the movie?
PD: Ultimately a movie is a three-act script and our musical is two act – it’s weighted differently. You have to create a different atmosphere. Things in the movie can happen so much quicker than on stage where you can’t have close ups or montage.
BP: When we adapt songs too, it’s the same. In the movie there is a great close up on Rose where the camera sort of lingers. We see that as the audience and think about her internal monologue – you ask what is she thinking, and that is the thought you can turn into a song, and that moment became ‘Pretty Funny.’ You can’t do a close up in the theatre, but what you can do is get inside her head and musicalize that inner monologue – and that’s where it becomes a natural place for a song. There are different ways of identifying song moments that in the film are very cinematic, but on stage need to be shown in a different way.
DOH: Did you ever find yourselves arguing about where certain songs should happen in the story?
JP: Of course we argued, arguing is the nature of collaboration, but actually when it came to where songs should go we agreed mostly on where we wanted them to be.
PD: We could easily pick out the moments that needed music, but spent a long time working out what exactly needed to be there.
DOH: If you could identify one problem with the current musical theatre industry, something that affects new writing teams, what would it be?
PD: Original score, original score, original score. When I read about a new show that doesn’t have a new score it makes me sad. When it means that original music is not on the table – that makes me sad.
JP: That is what this medium is! When we’re collaborating on something and a director says they’re using pre-existing music to fill that moment we’ll say to them – tell us what that moment is – what do you want to do? We’ll write it for you – we’ll fill that moment. That would be our pitch not just for us but for all writers. Let theatre writers take a stab at it!
PD: It takes daring producers to let theatregoers know that they can take a risk on something new, it helps them develop an appetite for something new rather than resting on something familiar. We need producers who create a culture where it’s okay for audiences to appreciate new work.
JP: It’s riskier, but producers like Danielle, like David Stone that take the risk and enable writers to create which in turn allows the art form to stretch and grow. It’s what is necessary for the development of new musicals.
DOH: It’s too easy to blame audiences for not liking or not wanting to like new material…
PD: Exactly. And that’s going to happen more and more if Producers don’t show them something new. Audiences won’t be used to it.
BP: They need to learn the excitement of hearing a song for the first time and hopefully falling in love with it.
PD: I feel in New York there are too many shows that are born in a Lawyer’s office. It’s about exploiting a catalogue or something we already know. An existing song can express an attitude or a point of view, but it’s never going to express an exact situation.
DOH: Finally, before you go and get ready to see the show this evening, if you could pick one song or one musical you wish you had written – what would it be?
JP: Finishing the Hat.
BP: Our Time.
PD: The Most Happy Fella. Which is a very strange choice for a book writer!
The European premiere of DOGFIGHT runs at London’s Southwark Playhouse from 13 August – 13 September 2014.