Peter Duchan and Justin Paul met at Coleytown Middle School. Peter was a big 8th grader, Justin a lowly 6th, but both were cast in “Peter Pan” and became friends.
The friendship blossomed through the Staples High School arts program. In 2001 — toward the end of his senior year — Peter thought it would be great if, at their final concert, the choir could sing a song he’d written.
The only problem, he says, was that he couldn’t write music.
But Justin had grown up around gospel songs. Peter said he’d write the words if Justin would take care of the actual notes.
“When Justin sits down at the piano, fun stuff happens,” Peter explains.
Justin wrote what Peter calls “a fantastic, upbeat song. My words were really not good, but that was secondary to the sound of the music.” (He advises ignoring the title: “Variations on Themes of Sorrow.”)
“It was different from the other stuff we did,” Peter recalls. With choral director Alice Lipson cheering them on, the choir loved it.
Peter did not know it then, but that was the first song Justin ever wrote.
It was far from his last.
At the University of Michigan, Justin met Benj Pasek. They became songwriting partners, collaborating on projects like the song cycle “Edges,” and the upcoming “A Christmas Story: The Musical!”
Pasek & Paul won a Sundance Institute Fellowship, and the 2007 Jonathan Larson Award.
Peter, meanwhile, graduated from Northwestern University. He co-wrote the screenplay for IFC Films’ “Breaking Upwards” and “Unlocked,” an Official Selection of the Tribeca Film Festival, among others.
In New York, Peter pitched plenty of ideas to Pasek & Paul. Nothing clicked.
Finally, more than 4 years ago, Peter suggested a musical version of “Dogfight.”
The Warner Brothers film, set in 1960s San Francisco, follows Eddie Birdlace, a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam. He and his friends hold a cruel competition — a “dogfight” – during which each man brings the ugliest date he can find to a party.
Justin and Benj’s agent helped obtain rights to the material. Throughout 2009 the duo worked on the music and lyrics. Peter wrote the book. The 1st workshop took place at the end of that year.
Finally — though this is not a long time frame for a musical — the show is in previews. It opens July 16th, at Second Stage Theatre in New York.
This period right before opening night is “nerve-wracking,” Peter admits. They’re still making minor tweaks, but soon the critics — and audiences — will have their say.
“Justin and Benj’s songs really push the show forward,” Peter praises.
But the show would be nothing without its book. Story, dialogue, structure — that’s all Peter’s work.
None of it would have happened, though, if Peter had not kept suggesting ideas to his friends, until one clicked.
Which in itself would not have happened, if Peter and Justin had not met on the set of a Coleytown Middle School production of “Peter Pan.”
Click below for a YouTube video of the first “Dogfight” rehearsal at Second Stage Theatre: