The first national tour of the Tony-Award winning, Broadway hit Fun Home is on stage at the National Theatre through May 13. Adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, the musical is based on an auto-biographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The story jumps back-and-forth throughout Alison’s life from childhood to adulthood, exploring her discovery of her sexuality and her feelings about her closeted father’s suicide.
Sarah speaks with actors Robert Petkoff and Susan Moniz who play Bruce and Helen Bechdel, Alison’s parents.
What drew each of you to the show?
RP: First of all, it’s just such a brilliant show. I’ve not seen a musical like this in so long. Part of me almost thinks it’s like a play with music. It’s so well written – the story itself is so good – and the music just flows right out of that story. It’s seamless.
But I was also drawn to the role of Bruce Bechdel. I have to say, going out on the road for a year is a big thing. But when I was thinking about accepting the job, my wife had said to me, “Isn’t this role one of the reasons you became an actor?” And I said, “Yeah. Absolutely.” He’s such a layered, complex person. You don’t find roles like this in musicals very often – something this well-written and layered and deep and complex. So, I knew I had to jump at it when the chance came.
SM: I didn’t know that much about it when I auditioned. I knew it had won the Tony Award. [Actually 5 Tonys, including Best Musical, 2015.] I remember seeing the Tony clip of “Ring of Keys.” And I knew that Judy Kuhn originated the role that I was now going to audition for, and I’ve been a big fan of hers, and I knew that vocally we could do some of the same kind of things. And I knew from the buzz about the show, that it was really beautiful and powerful. I think I read the graphic novel right before the audition. It was a quick turnaround, but I did get to read it, but I never saw the show until much later. And now I absolutely adore it.
Having read the script and listened to the music, it’s different than almost anything I’ve come across.
RP: Some people don’t compare it to Next to Normal, but they say it’s in the same sort of region. It tries to tackle a serious subject with both humor and seriousness.
Tell me about your characters.
RP: Bruce is this tortured guy. He has this central secret that affects everything else in his life. The shame of being who he really is leads him to sublimate all of that and transfer it into this house and these things, trying to create perfection in place of an authentic life. That attempt at creating perfection ends up becoming a real torment to his family in many ways. That’s not say, in Alison’s own words, “my family had a lot of fun with each other, too.” I think that the writers Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori are really good about reflecting that in the show. But Bruce is the kind of guy that when he enters a room, everyone just gets a little tense. They don’t know who they’re going to get that day. You can never be completely comfortable with someone like that – because they’re just not comfortable with themselves.
SM: Helen is a woman that is stuck in a difficult and unfortunate circumstance. The story takes place in the 60s and 70s during Alison Bechdel’s childhood. At that point in time, there wasn’t the kind of outreach and support you can get today. Helen is married to a closeted gay man, and you can imagine that is a really tough situation to be in. He’s not comfortable with his sexuality, and she’s not comfortable, and it’s not something they ever really discuss or put a name on. It’s just a very difficult living experience – very frustrated and volatile at times. And Helen is trying to deal with all of that while raising kids and keeping all of those plates spinning. She’s a strong woman and an interesting woman, but I wouldn’t say she has a super warm and fuzzy personality either.
Robert, because Bruce struggles with his sexuality, he has a tough time connecting with Alison as she works out her own identity. One might expect him to embrace her with open arms when she comes out to him, but it’s so much more complex. Could you speak to their relationship?
RP: Yeah, there are so many things that come at him when that knowledge of Alison’s sexuality comes. It’s tracked throughout the play, like when she sings “Ring of Keys” as Small Alison, we see him regarding her and noticing what’s she’s doing, and yet, he can’t bring himself to admit it. There are many possible explanations for that. One thing I explored was that in certain aspects, does he feel like he made that happen, in his own ignorance and the time that he lived. “Am I somehow responsible for her sexuality? Did I somehow influence that? Did my genetic makeup cause that to happen?” And for a man who perceives that it is wrong on some level, that can bring great shame and grief.
And when she is out and bringing her girlfriend to the house, he is left with a choice: “do I embrace that life myself since my daughter gets to live out? She gets to live her genuine life. So, maybe I could too.” I think that’s the great tragedy of this story. He can’t see a way to overcome his lifetime of shame and conflict about what it means to be gay and embrace your sexuality, and instead, he takes a much darker path.
I was particularly struck by his comment to Alison about how different college is for her compared to when he went.
RP: Yeah. He says, “I’ll admit I’m envious of the new freedom that appears on campuses today.” He says it in an off-handed way in these letters he’s sending Alison toward the end when he’s very manic. It’s such an understatement. It’s him saying to her, in a way, “my god, if I could have done that when I was college age, my entire life would be different.” It’s wonderfully placed in the script in a barrage of letters as he’s manically trying to work out what he is going to do with his life. It comes across as a passing comment, but it’s terribly heart-breaking if you really think about it.
Susan, as the play goes on, we realize that Helen knows about Bruce’s sexuality but has chosen to stay with him. Why do you think she stays?
SM: Part of it is the time period that she’s in. It’s easier to talk about things today – people have so much more freedom of walking away – but it would have been much more difficult back then. And as Helen says in her song, it’s “days and days and days,” and sometimes, you turn around and realize that fifteen or twenty years have gone because you’ve been so busy trying to hold things together, trying to just do the day-to-day things that are necessary to raise a family. Sometimes, you distract yourself with those things in order to get through, and it’s not until later that you realize, “wow, that was fifteen years of my life, how did that happen?”
I also think one of the biggest reasons is that they never really talked about what it was specifically. It was never mentioned immediately what was going on. I believe it was a slower realization. Because they didn’t name what it was, because they didn’t confront each other about it, it was easy to deny what was going on.
Eventually, the truth was that she did leave him. She was going to leave him right before he committed suicide. She did get to that point. However, these are things in the real world. It’s not brought out in the play. It’s also not mentioned that even after everything they’d been through, she chose to be buried next to Bruce when she passed away. Every marriage is complicated and multi-layered and not easy to define with one word. Things aren’t black and white and people are complicated. That, to me, speaks volumes; she could have been buried anywhere, but she wanted to be buried next to Bruce.
I was really interested in the moment when Helen is on the phone with Alison after Alison has come out to them. Helen is trying to walk a careful line between supporting her daughter but also protect her from the pain she’s experienced due to Bruce’s homosexuality.
SM: Yeah, she only has negative connotations with a gay lifestyle. Again, I know a little bit more about how she really felt about Alison and their story beyond what’s in the musical: I know she always had difficulty accepting Alison’s sexuality and was never comfortable with it. But certainly within the play, she only has bad associations with that lifestyle and the horrible repercussions that resulted from someone pursuing that lifestyle. I believe she was raised Catholic. I’m sure she wanted to support her daughter, but again, there are so many restrictions that hold her back from being able to do that openly. She did the best she could with the situation she was in. She wanted the best for her daughter. She didn’t want her daughter to be going through any difficulty.
Want to go?
At The National Theatre
Closes May 13, 2017
Details and tickets
The musical is based on a graphic novel, which is based on Alison Bechdel’s real life. What it’s like to bring a real person to life?
RP: It’s so interesting. The only real connection I have to him is through the graphic novel. I, of course, never met him. I talked very briefly with Alison about him. She was there for our opening night in Cleveland, a couple of nights in San Francisco, and our opening in LA. So, we had some great conversations, but I don’t want to feel like a vampire, sucking the life out of her just to fuel my art. I keep looking to the graphic novel and, of course, to Lisa and Jeanine’s version of that graphic novel, because ultimately, even though he was a real man, what the audience will see is my version, of Lisa and Jeanine’s version, of Alison’s version of her father. Having so many layers removed from the real man, I’m not doing an imitation of him, but I’m doing an interpretation of him. Alison seemed pleased with it, so that makes me happy.
SM: It’s interesting; Helen is a real, live person. However, I can only pull from what I am told in the text that we’re given. I found out years ago, for me, if I over-research something and then find out that the play will only speak to a fraction of what I’ve just done the research on, it doesn’t help me. So, I did not read [Alison’s] follow up book, Are You My Mother, the sequel to Fun Home. I consciously decided not to read that one, because it told a story outside of what our play was saying. I didn’t want to subconsciously know something that had not yet happened to my character. I didn’t want that to feed into anything. So, to answer your question, to play a person that was alive (she died before the show opened), it’s a delicate balance. And, yes, they are real people, but they have been dramatized in a theatrical sense. It’s not really an easy answer. There are many different filters and layers. Hopefully, the story is still intact and told in a compelling way.
Robert, what is your favorite thing about the show?
RP: My favorite thing about the show is that Sam Gold has directed it to be as intimate a production as it was on Broadway in the round at Circle in the Square. We are in proscenium spaces on the tour, but it was very important to him that the actors maintain that intimacy, even in large houses. And so, fueled by an amazing sound department, we are able to talk almost like we are in a movie. We try to be as grounded and as real as possible and maintain that intimacy. In the words of Sam, “keep it in Beech Creek,” meaning, don’t reach out to the audience and try to hit the back wall of the theater. Just talk to each other onstage. Be real with each other, and the audience will come to you. The sound department will help bring us out to the audience, but we don’t have to reach out in that way.
I really enjoy telling the story that way, because I feel like if we ever get too big with it, or if we ever try to fill a 2,500 seat house with our voices alone, suddenly, we’re not real people anymore, we’re these mannequins onstage. What Sam has done brilliantly in his direction, and what Jeanine and Lisa have done in their writing, is allow us to have the reality and the intimacy we expect from plays, and yet this is still a wonderful musical. You get this emotional delivery of music.
Music is an emotional delivery system unlike anything else. I remember playing Hamlet and doing those greats speeches, and they can be very moving, but when you put words to music, an audience walks out, and it’s still in their head in a way. It’s amazing.
And it can go beyond words – connecting on a deeper level.
RP: Absolutely. It’s interesting when people talk about writing musical theatre, one of the main things they say is, if you’re writing a good musical, when words fail you, when words are no longer enough, you have to sing, and that takes you to the next level of emotion. And that’s exactly it. If you’re doing it right, it works that way.
Susan, what is your favorite thing about the show?
SM: It’s such a lean piece of theatre, that there is no extra stuff. Every part is so important that there is no throw away moment. The show weaves so quickly and seamlessly back and forth through time. It’s not told in a linear fashion. It goes back and forth between her being a child, being college age, and being an adult. If I had to choose one of my favorite moments and one of my favorite songs is “Telephone Wire” because I know I can relate to it, and I think almost any adult can relate to it, because it’s a song about opportunity missed and not knowing how important a moment is until it’s gone and wanting to get that back. I think it’s something everyone can relate to.
What has the response been like to Fun Home as you’ve been out on the road?
RP: It’s been really wonderful. We had a little trepidation starting out thinking that when people see the show on Broadway, in our minds, they have a certain expectation about what they are going to see or what they are willing to see. So, when you go out to America, you go to places that have subscription houses where people are subscribing because they want to see Annie or Wicked or something like that, and then Fun Home is on the list as well. So, there is that unknown factor of what people are going to make of a show that they aren’t expecting to see. And overwhelmingly the response has been very positive.
I think the most heartening thing for me was in Las Vegas, when Alison says the lines early on: “And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.” I could see a guy in the front row rolling his eyes and looking at his wife like, “what have you brought me to?” And at the end of the show, he was wiping tears away from his eyes. That, to me, is the effect we are having in a nutshell. People are like, “what is this show?” because it doesn’t fit the category of a musical that people expect. But I swear, the people that give it the hour and forty minutes it takes to watch, come out changed and moved. People are connecting with the family in this story in ways they didn’t expect because it’s not necessarily their family. They might not have that exact experience, but people are seeing something of themselves on that stage or something of their own family. I’ve heard that over and over again. And that’s what makes great art. If you write a piece that is specific enough to one thing but also speaks to a larger human reference – that’s art.
SM: The response has been only positive. Once in awhile, I know that some people leave in the middle of the show, in some cities more than others. But, for the most part, it has been unbelievably positive. We get standing ovations every night and cheers and whistles – it’s so rewarding. Of course, in San Francisco and LA, we’re going to get incredible support. But we are also getting that support in Des Moines or Durham. We haven’t been anywhere that we’ve worried they’d run us out of town. There are people who love the show, they know what they are getting because they are big fans of the show already, and then there are people sitting there in shock because they have just been taken on this journey that they are so enthralled with, and they are jumping to their feet. It’s been great.
In another interview, Robert, you mentioned that these characters are just humans being human.
RP: Yeah. Carrying this story across America right now, in a country where we all feel so divided, there is something so great about taking a very human story and letting people see other people who may be very different from themselves, but they are able to recognize their humanness and equate their humanness with the audience’s own. And we start to realize, “oh we’re not so different. Our differences are similar.”
That’s what we need right now.
RP: Good god, yes.
Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know?
SM: I have no comic relief in my role, so when people talk to me, the show can sound dark and dreary. The show has an incredible amount of levity and humor in it as well. It’s the kind of show that will really make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it speaks to people in any kind of situation. It doesn’t just speak to those dealing with their sexuality. Anyone who has been a kid or has had a family will find something that reaches out and touches them in this show.
RP: I’m very excited to do it in DC. I don’t have a lot of illusions that a lot of the conservative side of DC will come and see this play, but I hope they will. My hope would be that everyone would come see this show. And again, let this story resonate in a way that pure politics can’t. When you have a polemic, an idea, a thing that people want to debate and argue, that’s a delivery system of ideas that we are finding out (especially now) is almost useless, because everyone is in their own bubble. But when you go to an event of art – a musical or play or dance show – whatever it is, art is able to deliver ideas in a way that is more palatable and intimate to people. And then, they can take those ideas home without feeling like they were told what to think, and it allows them to open their minds in a way they might not normally. So, when people are debating the NEA and funding the arts, the arts in this country are the thing that could bring us all together. Politics can no longer do that.