Fun Home is, yes, a musical about a lesbian cartoonist whose closeted father killed himself, but it is also about how we try to figure out the puzzle of our parents; about how we reassemble our childhood; about memory itself. It remains the inventive, entertaining, in places exhilarating, and almost inexpressibly heartbreaking show I saw Off-Broadway at the Public Theater a couple of years ago. And it is now one of those rare Off-Broadway musicals that actually improves when it transfers to Broadway. This is not despite the theater-in-the-round layout of the Circle in the Square, but in some measure because of it.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
The musical is adapted from the 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, who was best-known for her syndicated comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” before the memoir made her a literary star; Time Magazine called it the best book of the year. In it, the author, having reached the age her father was when he walked into the path of a speeding truck, looks back at her childhood in the small town of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. Bruce Bechdel was a high school English teacher, as well as a funeral director, inheriting his father’s funeral home, and an obsessive restorer of antiques and old homes. It was only when, as a college student, Alison wrote a letter home coming out to her parents that she learned about Bruce’s own, secret sexual orientation. That was just four months before his suicide.
More than just a collection of captioned drawings, Bechdel’s book is witty and intellectual, with extensive digressions into Camus and Proust and Greek mythology – a tremendous challenge to translate to the stage.
Three remarkable theatre artists, playwright Lisa Kron, composer Jeanine Tesori and director Sam Gold, added their own considerable creativity in adapting Bechdel’s book. They chucked Proust, but kept the complicated tone; the book is subtitled “A Family Tragicomic.” In the musical, three different actresses portray Alison at different stages of her life – Small Alison at age 8, Medium Alison at 19, and the 43-year-old Alison of the present day. The look at the life of Alison, her father and the rest of her family is not told in strictly chronological order but in parallel timelines, with adult Alison witnessing scenes from her past, often drawing them, sometimes cringing at the memory being played out before her.
The musical was a huge hit when it opened downtown in 2013, a strikingly original musical that became a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with a Broadway transfer seemingly inevitable.
The simultaneous storylines turn out to be clearer when the stage is a circle – a tangible metaphor for the circle of life, as well as a practical way to make the audience feel closer to what’s going on. Also effective is some new stage technology: Now Alison’s drawing table, the pieces of furniture from her childhood home and the other scenery pop up out of the floor, and disappear back into it. (Scenic and costume designer David Zinn, who had the same tasks in the Off-Broadway production, probably deserves the greatest credit for making this work so well.) This too functions as an effective metaphor, for the trickiness of memory.
Indeed, there are many such unobtrusive metaphors. In one of the first scenes of the show, Alison’s father Bruce, portrayed splendidly by Michael Cerveris, is rummaging through a box a neighbor gave him of items that the neighbor considered junk. Bruce knows they are treasures – that old piece of cloth is gorgeous Irish linen; that tarnished teapot is silver. In the first song, “It All Comes Back,” he sings:
This has traveled continents to get here and crossed an ocean of time
And somehow landed in this box under a layer of grime
We simultaneously see Alison (Beth Malone) as an adult looking through a clone of the same box with the same tarnished teapot – for her an act of memory, and an effort to understand her childhood. The makers of the musical are introducing to us just how precious the seemingly tarnished real-life story of Alison Bechdel’s family.
Unlike, say, Matilda or Annie, the darkness in Fun Home feels for real. Its unconventionality could easily seem uncomfortable, its sadness unspeakable, much less singable. Yet there is much in this show that is exuberant. The title comes from the nickname the family gave to the funeral home, and it does seem fun when Small Alison (an impressive Sydney Lucas) uses the parlor as a playground, playing hide and seek in the caskets with her two brothers (two new members of the cast, Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams.) Together they sing “Come To The Fun Home,” a rousing rock mock commercial for their funeral home:
You know our mourners–
They like, they like, they like
(In what other musical will you hear “psalm” rhymed with “embalm”?)
Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs, the third new member of the nine-member cast) celebrates her coming out in college, after her first sexual experience with a classmate named Joan (Roberta Colindrez) with the ecstatic, hilarious song “Changing My Major”:
I’m changing my major to Joan
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan
I’m changing my major to sex with Joan with a minor in kissing Joan
These songs stand out for their catchy melodies and rocking beats. Many of the 14 songs by Tesori are so integrated into the scenes that they barely register as tunes, an integration aided by the frequent musical underscoring, as if Fun Home were a film. (The lyrics by Kron, though, consistently stand out.)
Fun Home is also admirable in the way it weaves in the stories. In an early scene, Medium Alison is talking with Joan about how she just realized she was gay two weeks before, by discovering the book “Word is Out” in a bookstore. Immediately afterwards, Small Alison is resisting her father’s efforts to have her wear a pretty pink dress to a party.
Small Alison: I despise this dress. What’s the matter with boy’s shirts and pants?
Bruce: You’re a girl.
Small Alison: This dress makes me feel like a clown.
It’s just such unexpected juxtapositions and ironies that give Fun Home a rich texture that a more straightforward chronology – or less complicated characters – wouldn’t match.
The danger whenever a musical inspires such a thrilled reception is that it will raise expectations too high. Fun Home is not Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is a small, innovative musical, one focused on a daughter and her father, with what feel like cameos from the rest of the family and other characters (Bruce’s young male “friends,” all portrayed by Joel Perez.) Much mention has been made of how touching the song for Alison’s mother Helen (Judy Kuhn), “Days and Days,” which includes the lyrics:
Days and days and days
made of lunches and car rides and shirts and socks and grades and piano and no one clocks
the day you disappear
But Helen herself hardly appears in Fun Home – something that Bechdel herself tacitly acknowledged when she created something of a companion book, “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.”
Still, Fun Home has already moved many people, and it’s poised to affect a far larger number whether or not it sweeps the Tonys.
Fun Home is on stage at Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) New York, NY 10019
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