by John Stoltenberg
Last season The Keegan Theatre mounted a Vietnam War–era musical called Hair. In a column I described that production as “radiant and thrilling,” “an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.” This season Keegan has mounted another Vietnam War–era musical, this one called Dogfight (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan). The worlds of the two shows are worlds apart. Hair is peopled with street kids who protest the Vietnam War; Dogfight portrays teen Marines about to be shipped off to fight it. I love that Keegan has staged them both. And I readily praise this year’s Dogfight as I did last year’s Hair—it is radiant and thrilling; its depiction of love is exuberantly hopeful. Plus the music is wonderfully sung, and the direction and staging are superb. Keegan’s Dogfight is a smashing good show.
But what really drew me in to Keegan’s Dogfight—and absorbed me not only as an “entertain me” audience member but more fundamentally as a human being—was the central story and the male lead’s character arc. At its core, the story in Dogfight is exactly as ethically resonant as the story of Pasek & Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen (which premiered recently at Arena Stage).
Whereas Dear Evan Hansen is based on an original story (with book by Steven Levenson) and Dogfight follows closely the Nancy Sivoca’s film Dogfight (from an original screenplay by Bob Comfort), the two shows looked at side-by-side reveal an extraordinary and distinctive use of the musical form to say something profoundly real about what it means to live a moral life: who we are when we fuck up and who we are when we make things right.
The parallels are striking.
In Dear Evan Hansen, we see a high school senior, Evan (played incredibly by Ben Platt), who, trying to fit in socially, makes a deeply dishonest choice: in hopes of belonging to a family he doesn’t have, he builds a huge fib about having been friends with a classmate who committed suicide. In Dogfight we see a young Marine, Birdlace (played incredibly by Tiziano D’Affusa), who, trying to fit in socially, makes a cruelly callous choice: in order to bond with his bros, he invites Rose (Isabelle Smelkinson, making a sensational professional debut) to a party where he knows the guy who brings the ugliest girl will win a jackpot that he and two other Jarheads paid into.
In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan reaches a dramatic point of moral recognition, which I wrote about in a love letter to the musical:
You presented a central character, Evan, whose dramatic character arc is actually a profound trajectory of conscience—who despite his good intentions in deceiving others comes to realize that he has totally, totally screwed up. The deception he committed was so wrong he cannot stand himself. And by that point in the second act when Evan falls apart emotionally in a morass of crushing guilt and remorse (in his song called “Words Fail”), you embody on the stage such a searing image of a self feeling utterly irredeemable that I was stunned into awed silence….
Thereafter the musical narrative shows us Evan trying to apologize and make amends. Similarly Birdlace in Dogfight reaches a point of recognizing how wrong he was and is to have done what he did (expressed not in music but in dialog). And thereafter the narrative shows us Birdlace trying to apologize to Rose, whom he realizes he has hurt, and make amends. (The night I saw the show, the audience was audibly on Rose’s side. When Rose, upon learning she has been cruelly duped, slaps Birdlace flat across the face, there were cheers.)
These narrative arcs do not center on a person with a bad character; both Birdlace and Evan are established as upstanding and conscientious. But both musicals present a good person who makes bad choices under social pressure—what happens when conscience capitulates to crowd-sourced self-esteem. Both musicals then show us that main character realizing that he doesn’t want to have done that bad thing not only because it hurt others but because it’s not who he wants to be; it’s not who he is. Then gradually both musicals show us those main characters figure out what to do about it to make things right—in the process of which their true self-esteem is reclaimed and owned.
Connecting the dots of Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen—a rare experience made possible just this month in DC—one may reasonably conjecture that Pasek & Paul are transforming the course of American musical theater history. They are telling singularly contemporary stories of a soul’s progress. And they are making those stories sing aloud and in our hearts.
Pasek & Paul’s hit Dear Evan Hansen has left town and is on its way to New York’s Second Stage, so if you missed it, you missed it. But you’ve still got a chance to be wowed by its powerful precursor, Dogfight. Grab it.