Based on the 1991 film of the same name, “Dogfight,” the 2012 musical, was an instant success. Originating as an Off-Broadway production, the heart-wrenching show has now been performed across the world and translated into various languages. Although Music, Theatre & Dance alumni Benj Pasek and Justin Paul crafted the music and lyrics for “Dogfight,” it has never been performed at the University of Michigan until now.
“Dogfight” follows the story of Corporal Eddie Birdlace, a Marine who has just one free night before being deployed to Southeast Asia. To pass the time, Eddie and his best friends, Boland and Bernstein, compete to see who can find the “ugliest” woman to bring to a party (a.k.a dogfight) where she will be judged on her appearance. When Eddie meets Rose Fenny, however, his perspective on this degrading game — and on love — shifts. In an in-person interview with The Michigan Daily, musical director Andrew Gerace, a Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA senior, called “Dogfight” “a story of love and loss and terrible error and redemption.”
Even those who know the show “will leave the theatre surprised” agreed Gerace and Director Jules Garber, a Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA senior.
“If you just know the music, it sounds like it will be a happy story. But when you add the text it is a lot heavier,” said Gerace.
On why “Dogfight” was selected to be performed now, Gerace, who is majoring in political science, explained that “The Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan had similar lenses. I saw comparison photos of the U.S. military leaving Vietnam next to the U.S. military leaving Afghanistan. For me, it felt like an appropriate time to reconsider how we view war, conflict and the U.S. military.”
In an effort to respect “Dogfight”’s heavy material and develop an effective piece, the producers employed a mantra of “process over product.” The creative team worked to approach the show with a DEI-focused and community-care approach — serving as an example for all students who work with heavy artistic material. Working with a DEI Coordinator helped actors come to “language agreements” about problematic lines their characters say to ensure comfort on the actors’ behalf. As stated by Gerace, “Dogfight’’’s text is inherently flawed … there are things not acceptable in 2022 that were acceptable in 2012.”
Producer Allie Kench, an Engineering graduate and current Business Graduate student, noted that “It has been a priority to focus on the process at the forefront and letting the product follow. A process that has all the elements like DEI work, like intimacy coordination, making sure that every team member feels supported that will ultimately create a great process.” Kench also shared that as the show has “scenes and moments of assault. I saw the production as an opportunity to create a larger dialogue on assault.” Accordingly, she helped to bring a Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) workshop called “Michigan Men” on harmful masculinity to the cast and team. SAPAC agreed to modify the workshop so that the team could talk about “both (the cast and teams’) experiences (regarding masculinity) at Michigan … but also the characters, the content of the show and the story. It was twofold” said Kench.
When asked what differentiates this version of “Dogfight” from others, Garber shared that “Being a non-binary person leading an incredibly male-dominated cast … brings a lot to (the) show and makes it a vastly different production.” Further, they said the creative team was “making an intentional choice to have different interpretations of the characters than people normally see presented.” In their directing, they made certain to deviate from the version of Rose that is often “copy and pasted in most productions.” Further, Garber said “It’s different watching a 28-year-old play a boy going to war than watching kids between 18-22, the age these kids (in the show) were going to war. You realize they are kids … that they were sending kids to war. This makes it hard to watch, but it adds something you don’t get in (all productions of ‘Dogfight.’)”
Challenging the ways in which “Dogfight” is often performed while maintaining a staunch commitment to dramaturgy, this production is sure to be exciting, tear-jerking and meaningful. A bold exploration of masculinity and war, this student-run production “Dogfight” is a testament to how great art can be made through a thoughtful process.
“Dogfight” will be performed at the Arthur Miller Theatre on Feb. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 13 at 2 p.m. All admission is free and seating will be filled on a first-come-first-serve basis. Those hoping to see the show are advised to get there early! Audience members should be aware of the sensitive and potentially triggering subject matter of the piece. “Dogfight,” in particular, grapples with themes of masculinity, assault and racism.
Daily Arts Contributor Nicole Appiani can be reached at email@example.com.