SONG SPOTLIGHT: Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade
Welcome to Song Spotlights, where I focus on one of the many great songs available for purchase at NewMusicalTheatre.com’s kick-ass store. This week, we’re looking at Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s song “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” from their musical Dogfight.
Dogfight is based on a 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lilli Taylor. It’s about the unexpected relationship that develops between United States Marine Eddie Birdlace and waitress Rose Fenny after Birdlace takes Rose to a party as his “ugly” date. The title Dogfight refers to a cruel contest the Marines have rigged; the Marine with the ugliest date wins a cash prize.
The musical, with a book by Peter Duchan, makes almost no significant dramaturgical alterations to the story’s central romance. It does, however, bolster the role Birdlace’s Marine buddies play by granting them additional material. While almost every other song in Dogfight grows directly out of a scene from the film, “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” is entirely unique to this adaptation.
My theatre history professor said most integrated musicals from the Golden Age could divide its characters into Two Worlds. Group numbers often introduced and defined these worlds. In your typical Rodgers and Hammerstein show, the Two Worlds would often be men and women, but usually there were other levels. In Oklahoma! it’s the farmers and the cowmen, or the domestic and the unattached. Curly and Laurey’s relationship is about the unattached man (the cowboy life) settling down into domestic bliss (stable farm industry). “The Farmer and the Cowman” foreshadows this with its call for reconciliation between the two groups.
In the film, Rose discovers the dogfight bet and calls Birdlace out in front of his buddies before leaving. He quickly sets off to apologize, and they go on a real date. In the musical, Birdlace stays with his friends Boland and Bernstein after Rose storms out. Act Two opens with the Marines at an arcade. Ready to help Bernstein lose his virginity, the lads launch into “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.”
What are Dogfight‘s Two Worlds? The violent and the non-violent, and the gendered connotations those worlds have. Eddie is a Marine; Rose idolizes Woody Guthrie. But Eddie is more drawn to Rose’s world than he is to his own, and he is forced to reckon with that fact during this song.
The Two Worlds in this scenario both tell coming-of-age stories. For most teenagers (especially girls, so we’re told), “first love” is a milestone that brings you closer to adulthood. For young males, especially during wartime, violence and military conquest help you “become a man.” To quote the song: “No name schoolboy, awful green. Trained, ordained as a mean Marine. Now they can’t fuck with the tough young buck cradlin’ an M-14.” The music even suggests a military march with its “Da dat da da, dat da da” refrain.
What’s striking is how childish the lyrics can be. The song depicts the three men’s fantasies about post-war life. They want “cotton candy and lemonade” and “[their] face on a big balloon.” These juvenile and naive projections are included for dramatic irony’s sake, since Dogfight‘s audience likely knows exactly what kind of reception Vietnam veterans would receive. But it’s also in character; they don’t know what it’s going to be like. And what’s genuinely more important to most 18-21 year olds? Serving in the military, or the sweet party and food you get afterwards? “No confetti for the boys who stayed,” indeed.
Bernstein and Boland are also hung up on sex and violent imagery: “Watchin’ busty blonds compete, drawin’ claws like cats in heat/Let ’em fight to spend the night/And stain up that nice white sheet.” Sex is like a battle — and the battle is not romantic. Until…
SPOILERS. Turn back now if you’d rather wait for a production.
There’s a break in the song as Bernstein approaches a prostitute. It’s late; she turns him down. Anxious to have sex (another way to “become a man”), he forces himself on her while other Marines watch. Birdlace breaks up the attempted rape.
The song starts again as Boland justifies Bernstein’s actions: “A hero don’t get soft, a hero don’t retreat. He’s gonna get his way cause he won’t accept defeat. Guys like me and you, we’re heroes through and through. Semper Fi, Do or Die!” While the word “hero” is in the song title, this is the first time it’s defined. Boland’s words discuss violence, but the words he uses romanticize that violence. It’s no mistake that the expression marks for this section of the music are “Patriotic” and “Intensely,” as opposed to the “Rowdy Carnival” that characterizes the early part. Eddie Birdlace might say he’ll “teach a gook to hold a gun,” but that’s only hypothetical. He’s a young kid playing a part. When the violence turns real and Boland defends it, he splits.
While some might dislike the decision to change when Eddie’s epiphany happens — it pulls focus from Rose, and gives him more heroic action — I like that it’s a slow epiphany. Eddie doesn’t see Rose sing “Pretty Funny,” so he can be in denial about what he’s done. It also makes the bond he shares with his friends stronger; he doesn’t immediately ditch them for Rose, it takes something extreme to drive him away. It’s important for the audience to be equally invested in the Two Worlds Eddie is torn between.
“Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” is like most great musical numbers: it forwards the plot, it develops character and theme, and it gets stuck in your head for days. While it’s very specific to Dogfight, it can also be sung as a standalone character piece. “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” is a group song that actually goes somewhere — it takes you from a kid’s imaginings about war and reward to a declaration of what it means to belong to the United States Armed Forces. It’s a journey you can go on even without the scene.
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