Here’s some advice to the hordes of theatergoers who will see Fun Home when it starts performances on Broadway in March: Don’t be afraid to wait at the stage door for stars Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn. They’ll be more than pleased to meet and talk with you.
They’ve had plenty of experience, for when Fun Home played its wildly acclaimed, sold-out run at the Public Theater in late 2013, dozens upon dozens of fans approached them after the show to tell them what a glorious time they’d had.
It was bit easier there. The Public Theater doesn’t have a stage door, so Cerveris and Kuhn took their leave by sauntering through the lobby. There, to their delight, came the appreciative crowds to talk about the funny, charming, and incisive production they’d just seen.
“I can’t count how many came up to us,” says Cerveris, who adds that many people said, “So much of my family life was like this.”
Cerveris plays Bruce and Kuhn is his wife, Helen. They were a real-life Pennsylvania couple whose one daughter, Alison Bechdel, wrote the 2006 graphic novel Fun Home on which the musical is based.
The family lives above a funeral home, where Bruce is an undertaker. As a result, Alison and brothers Christian and John have long been inured to playing downstairs among the coffins. Helen doesn’t mind as long as they keep their toys out of the way, for Bruce likes everything well-organized.
Easier said than done, of course. There are plenty of surprises that won’t be divulged here, but many of them peppered throughout the plot spurred the attendees at the Public to stay around and talk.
It’s been an important component of the marvelous experience that Kuhn has had with the show. “My daughter was applying to colleges and I wondered what my life would be when she was gone,” she says. “When I got the offer to work with Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, and Sam Gold, I said, ‘I’m there!’”
Her faith was not misplaced. Fun Home received a Best Musical Drama Desk nomination as well as nods for Tesori’s music, Kron’s book and lyrics, and Gold’s direction. It also was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which is a rarity for a musical.
“And it’s allowed me in a way to pick up a whole new family,” Kuhn says enthusiastically. “I’ve been with the show for every stage of development in the last three and a half years, from books-in-hand to being placed in front of music stands to a workshop at the Public to three weeks at Sundance. And yet despite all the acclaim, everyone’s still striving to make it even better.”
So theatergoers who saw it at the Public or who have the already-released original cast album will see a few changes — including the addition of Emily Skeggs, who took over from Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison.
No, Medium Alison doesn’t pull out a Ouija board or try to communicate with the long dead. Fun Home uses a trio of actresses to portray Bechdel at three different stages of her life. So Skeggs appears between Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and the adult version, who’s simply named Alison (Beth Malone).
We see the seeds sown for the adult Alison. Small Alison takes a shine to a delivery woman and her ring of keys that suggests every door is open to her. Medium Alison makes a best friend (and then some) with Joan, a college classmate who helps Alison to learn who she really is.
En route, Bruce learns that too, leading to an unexpected conclusion.
“I was reminded that almost every family has secrets,” says Cerveris. “We’ve all been on that car ride where the driver has something he wants to get off his chest and the passenger wants him to divulge it — and then nothing gets said.”
Not everyone who met Kuhn in the lobby was solely interested in discussing what they’d just seen. Some were fans who’d been smitten with her for two solid decades.
“Yes, giving voice to Pocahontas,” she says, citing the title character of the 1995 Disney animated film, “got me noticed by a lot of people. Many of them say, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen you — and I’m glad to see what you look like!’”
Mostly, however, the postshow talks turned to the show itself. “It’s often hilarious and a beautiful story that tells how a young girl can overcome and accept the world,” says Kuhn. “Alison Bechdel has been greatly lauded in her career, even to the point where she’s been given a MacArthur Genius grant.”
The role is a departure for Cerveris, who isn’t a parent and rarely finds himself portraying a dad. “Even when I reached the right age, I was seldom was chosen to play one,” says the 54-year-old before he remembers and realizes, “Well, Sweeney Todd was a father,” citing the role that got him his third of five Tony nominations.
“But I am an uncle who’s close to my nephew,” he adds. “Maybe that came through to the kids in the cast, because they did take to me. They’d climb over me and show me what they’d done in school that day. It made me think of when I was that affectionate with my own dad, who’s always been wonderful to me.”
In return, Cerveris has made his own father quite proud by appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and Road Show. “Dad’s a real Sondheim devotee,” he says. “I still remember when I was 13 and he played the long-playing record of A Little Night Music while pointing out in awe that every song was in three-quarter time or a variation thereof.”
There’s no record that Bruce cared for Sondheim, but he and Cerveris almost have one thing in common: Bruce liked to rummage around trash cans to find what he inferred were “old treasures”; Cerveris does it in a more rarefied way by trolling eBay — although his motivation isn’t collecting for fun or profit.
“I always look for items that can help me with a role,” he says. “I have plenty of Argentinian tango records that got me more in the mood for Juan Peron in Evita. I now own many books about John Wilkes Booth that helped me into his mind.” (That reading obviously paid off: Cerveris won a Tony for Assassins.)
Alas, eBay wasn’t able to help Cerveris find any information on Bruce. “Bruce was a quiet, private person,” he says. “As much as I wanted to accurately establish his point of view, all I could find were other people’s opinions of him.”
Although the critics gave Cerveris good reviews, the one that particularly pleased him came from Alison Bechdel and her brother. “They said I made their father funny and charming, the way he could be, but that I also added in that mysterious quality he had.”
Mysterious indeed — which is part of the surprise. “I was hoping to find more when we all went to the family home at Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, which is now a bed-and-breakfast,” says Cerveris. “While seeing the actual wallpaper that Bruce put up was really affecting, I didn’t really find out any more about him. This has been more of an intuitive than intellectual journey.”
He’ll have plenty of chances to deepen his character, for Fun Home is poised to be a sharp contender for multiple Tony Awards. And can we have a recount on that Pulitzer too?
Photo: Roberta Collindrea, Joel Perez, Emily Skeggs, Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Zell Steele Morrow, Oscar Williams. Credit: Joan Marcus