In our new blog series, theater journalist Andy Propst gives an insider's look (and listen!) to some of the newest releases in the Ghostlight Records catalogue, as well as reflecting on some of our past recordings. First up, Andy gives a listen to the brand-new and immensely popular DOGFIGHT Cast Recording:
It's been a big year for the white-hot songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It started eleven months ago when Second Stage Theatre produced their show (with book by Peter Duchan) Dogfight. Then, just a few months later, the guys got their Broadway debut when A Christmas Story: The Musical (book by Joseph Robinette) opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Now, Pasek and Paul are Tony and Drama Desk Award nominees for the latter show, while Dogfight has picked up the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.
For anyone who didn't get a chance to see Dogfight during its limited off-Broadway run, Ghostlight Records' newly released original cast recording provides not only an aural "glimpse" into the charms of this musical adaptation of the acclaimed 1991 film of the same title, but also a sense of what makes Pasek and Paul so unique among today's musical theater writers.
With both Dogfight (set in 1967 as a trio of Marines are about to be deployed to Vietnam) and A Christmas Story (also based on much-loved film and set in the 1940s as good ole Ralphie pines for his ultimate Christmas gift, a Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun), the songwriters take audiences to bygone eras through their music.
In Dogfight, for instance, you'll hear overtones of varied 1960s pop sounds as tight, pulsating harmonies (reminiscent of the Beach Boys) collide with gentle folk strains that evoke memories of singers like Joan Baez (just listen to the delicately conceived "Before It's Over"). Rock 'n' roll creeps into the score as well, and Pasek and Paul even reference one of the songs that the characters would have grown up with: Hank Williams' classic "Hey Good Lookin'," a tune from the early 1950s that would have been incredibly popular with their folks.
What Pasek and Paul do with their "Hey Good Lookin'" is keep the sense of the original - it's a guy trying to sweet-talk a girl into a date - and just a minute fraction of its original country feel. Then, they refract it through the musical prism of what would have been popular for the kids at the time when the musical is unfolding.
Not only do you hear some of the previously mentioned Beach Boys-like stylings, but also some girl-group "doo-wops" and there's even a hint of funk underneath it all. It all combines in a number that sets period and musically establishes character, even as it propels the musical itself forward as the male characters attempt to lure some girls to a party. Anyone familiar with Williams' original will even find that the writers' use of the title inspires slight cringes as something that had been playfully earnest takes on a more double-edged meaning in Dogfight.
Pasek and Paul fill the show with other sorts of musical fusions, drawing inspiration from the sounds of the era and more contemporary ones, including the staccato pointilist sounds that listeners might associate with works by Stephen Sondheim (heard most notably in "Nothing Short of Wonderful"). The result of their work is not only a musical that provides an overall sense of an era from our not-so-distant past, but also one that never succumbs to being simply a pastiche of period musical styles.
It's an exciting blend of old and new and one which should keep the team very much at the fore of musical theater writing (and theater awards ceremonies) for many years to come.
*** Watch Lindsay Mendez sing "Pretty Funny" at Dogfight's Album Release Concert at Joe's Pub: