Fun Home began a limited engagement at the Public Theater in the fall of 2013 with little fanfare, but by the time critics weighed in three weeks later, preview audiences were already spreading the word: Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir had been transformed into one of the most exciting and moving new musicals in years.
Buoyed by reviews that hailed the production as “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “achingly beautiful,” Fun Home went on to win five 2014 best musical awards. And yet the show’s many admirers hoped to see it return on an even bigger stage: Broadway. On March 27, the extraordinary story of the Bechdel family comes alive again at Circle in the Square Theatre, with original cast members Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, and 11-year-old Sydney Lucas reprising their acclaimed performances under the direction of Sam Gold.
“As soon as I opened the book, from page one, I knew it would sing,” composer Jeanine Tesori recalls of Fun Home. The four-time Tony nominee received a copy from playwright Lisa Kron (Well), and for the next five years, they worked together to musicalize what Tesori calls “the universal story of how a parent and child are always reaching for each other.” Universal, yes, but also very specific, given Bechdel’s self-described “tragicomic” tale of growing up near the funeral home run by her father, a closeted high school English teacher, in rural Pennsylvania.
“My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike.”
Family sagas exert a powerful pull on stage, especially those in which memory plays a part. New York Times critic Ben Brantley likened Fun Home to The Glass Menagerie, another poignant account of an artist struggling to make sense of the past. The new musical ingeniously divvies Alison’s life story among actresses of three ages: Lucas as precocious Young Alison, Emily Skeggs as college-age Medium Alison (whose realization that she’s gay becomes part of a larger family crisis), and Malone as the adult narrator.
Tesori experimented with presenting a single character at different ages in her first musical, 1997’s Violet (revived last spring in a Tony-nominated production), and a decade later in Shrek, with three versions of Princess Fiona sharing the stage. “The idea of who you are versus where you’ve been is just so rich,” she muses, adding, “I think I’ve been studying that device for almost 20 years in order to write Fun Home.”
The hourlong score (preserved in an original cast album from PS Classics) subtly matches the style of music with the character who performs it. Young Alison and her kid brothers sing bouncy Jackson 5–type tunes; their unhappy mother (Kuhn) gets a yearning ballad; their demanding, secret-keeping father (Cerveris) has “a soundscape,” as Tesori puts it, “that’s all psychological. I tried to live inside the secrets and crevices and places where shame has an address.”
“My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay and I was gay, and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Alison Bechdel’s book was published in 2006, but the musical version arrives on Broadway at a perfect moment in the ongoing national conversation about gay rights. Observes Bechdel, “Fun Home is about the ways my father’s life made my life possible — not just in the obvious biological sense, but as a gay person. I’m very conscious of my debt to the generations who came before me and made their way in a much more hostile world. . . . I’m happy to see that the very phenomenon of ‘coming out’ is becoming kind of obsolete. More and more, people are able to completely bypass the ‘closet’ that one presumably ‘comes out’ from.”
The fact that Bechdel, Tesori, and Kron were born within a year of each other, in 1960 and 1961, helped them hone in on how baby boomers moved forward from the taboos of their parents’ era — and how that shift in attitudes paved the way for an even more open relationship with the next generation. “Our moms didn’t talk to us about sexuality,” Tesori says of her 50-something peers, “not because they were mean, but because there wasn’t a language for it. But out of that confusion and shame has come a generation who changed the conversation. I’ve never experienced a musical more right for its time than Fun Home.”
Tesori’s own family offers a prime example of how her show speaks to theatergoers of all ages. “My 83-year-old mom saw it, my 17-year-old daughter saw it, and my sisters saw it, and all of them were blown away,” she says. “I think it’s because Alison’s source material is so moving and so human. You can run from the bond of parent and child, you can hide from it, but you can’t escape it.”
“I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.”
Broadway theatergoers can look forward to an intimate production of Fun Home at Circle in the Square. “Sam always wanted to stage it in the round,” Tesori says of her director, who used a turntable in the original Off-Broadway production. The new configuration puts the audience closer to the Bechdels and their complicated relationship. “There’s no escape from the memories,” Tesori explains. “You become a witness to Alison’s story, which is very moving.”
In the end, Fun Home’s depiction of family life “is like a tapestry,” Tesori says. “The show is a song of yearning. When the bond between a parent and child is interrupted, when it stops short or isn’t whole, there are consequences. I want people who see it to come out thinking, I can do that too — I can look back to move forward.”
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.