Two weeks ago, Slate ran a short piece called “Fun Home: Is America Ready for a Musical about a Butch Lesbian?” The article quotes collaborators Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and Lisa Kron (Well) describing the importance of seeing characters we don’t usually find in musicals. Kron said,
[S]he has grown weary of a tiresome trope: In several recent musicals, “There was a moment where someone would say the word lesbian as a non sequitur because it was funny. I’d be so on board, and then I’d be slapped in the face by it. It was just like, This character’s a joke. This is not a person.”
If the preview performance of Fun Home I saw is any indication, enthusiastic audiences full of all kinds of people seemed at once moved, amused, and enthralled by the story of a lesbian who is indeed a person—and a full, complex one at that.
The new musical is adapted from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home (2006), a meta-memoir that muses on her own family history and especially, her father’s. A closeted gay man for his entire life, Bechdel’s father, Bruce (played with gorgeous voice and excruciating anguish by Michael Cerveris), throws his thwarted sexual energy into refurbishing old houses, including the one in which his family lives.
The “fun home” is actually a funeral home, a business left to Bruce by his father, in which he toils of economic necessity. He’s also an English teacher, well-known in the small Pennsylvania town in which Alison grows up. And he’s also an infamous cruiser of men and adolescents, who plies young guys with beer and sherry and leaves his three children alone in a New York apartment during a vacation while he slips out to pick up tricks.
But he’s also the only father Alison has. When she realizes as a student at Oberlin, after many years of boyish gender performances, that she’s a lesbian, she wants to connect with the father with whom she turns out to have something profound in common. But because he’s utterly unable to speak the truth of his life, he deflects Alison’s questions and disappoints her emotional need. Four months after she comes out to her parents, Bruce steps in front of a bus traveling down the street where he’s taken on a new house-remodeling project and kills himself.
The graphic memoir and this lovely, surprisingly funny and aptly observed musical focus on Alison’s struggle to make sense of her father’s life and death. Kron, who wrote the pitch-perfect book and the literate and often hysterical lyrics, and composer Tesori and director Sam Gold (Picnic), create a capacious physical and narrative structure in which to let Alison’s story unfold.
Told in simultaneous time, the adult Alison (Beth Malone) narrates, standing behind her drawing table, pencil in hand, pondering captions for her cartoon frames, but also moving into and out of the rest of the action as a kind of unseen visitor from the future. She lurks on the edges of her own past life, watching “Small” (Sydney Lucas) and “Medium” (Alexandra Socha) versions of herself play out key scenes in her family history. She wonders, from the vantage of the present, if she can write a different treatment to capture what was really happening in her past.
Alison reads over her younger selves’ shoulders as they write in their diaries, groaning over their facile philosophizing or their tossed off observations about key moments. For example, Small Alison, after being unexpectedly summoned to her father’s side while he prepares a corpse for burial, notes in her journal that she saw her first dead body today. Then she comments, with the same emphasis and import, that she had an egg salad sandwich and watched The Partridge Family on TV. Large Alison can’t believe that her smaller self left so little record of such cataclysmic moments.
In some ways, grown Alison’s musing, spectral presence, while moving and elegiac, is the most elliptical part of this wonderful show. It’s difficult to capture someone thinking about their past, which makes Alison a powerful but static presence, the stand-in for the audience as we, too, watch history play out. But Fun Home’s narrative isn’t conventional; that is, it’s not motivated by plot or conflict so much as by moments, crafted to exemplify two lives that ran parallel but so infrequently truly touched.
The set design, too, by David Zinn (who also designed the costumes), moves the episodic scenes fluidly around on a revolve, that opens up onto various moments in Alison’s life. The always-moving scene let’s the story clip, and keeps Alison literally moving into and out of her own history.
Lucas is virtuosic as Small Alison, whom she plays as a prepubescent rebel with a cause. Already a tomboy, Small Alison plays out her boyishness with relish, especially in “Al for Short,” a show-stopping song in which, wearing a tough leather motorcycle jacket, she asks to be called “Al . . .” and then adds, with distaste, “. . . ison,” eager to crop off the remnant of girlishness that ends her name. Lucas’s charismatic, perfectly timed comic performance is thrilling. When Bruce appears to insist that she wear a barrette and a dress, Small Alison’s disgust is palpable, painful, and understandable.
Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale, as Alison’s put-upon brothers, are also terrific. The three kids stage a commercial for the fun home, in which they pop out of coffins to sing the praises of their father’s business. Later, as they pretend to emulate the normal, happy family life each of them understands is not, in fact, their own, the kids and their parents perform as The Partridge Family, under bubble-gum pop lights, with music and lyrics that echo that fabricated television band’s forcefully cheerful melodies and words.
For those of us who grew up as proto-lesbians in the 1960s and 70s (Bechdel was born in 1960), Fun Home strikes a deeply resonant chord. I know I wasn’t the only one in the audience at the Public that night whose eyes filled as she watched Medium Alison, struggling to understand her sexual and gender identity, approach the door of her college’s gay student union office, only to turn away in fear and shame before she could persuade herself to knock.
I doubt I was the only one who recognized the difficulty of writing a coming-out letter to your parents while at the same time, being over-the-moon with newly found but forbidden desire. Kron and Tesori and Socha (wonderfully awkward and earnest as Medium Alison) capture these emotions in “Changing My Major,” a song whose refrain is “I’m changing my major to Joan,” Alison’s first girlfriend (Roberta Colindrez). Joan wears an array of political buttons on her coat and backpack, and patiently, lovingly accompanies Alison as she discovers herself.
Socha and Colindrez have great chemistry, capturing the excitement and daring of what it meant to be a “woman-loving-woman” on a college campus in the 1970s. As Joan, Colindrez is droll and understated, but warm and empathic. Joan manages to connect with Alison’s parents on a visit to the fun home, smoothing the way for Alison to be fully herself with them, even as Bruce continues to refuse his own truths.
Judy Kuhn, as Helen, Alison’s mother, has the thankless role of the wife who knows exactly who her husband is, but feels powerless to put into words what he denies. A character without agency is difficult to play. But Kuhn works up a good head of ire and rue in her one solo late in the show, bemoaning her own choice to stay with a man she knows prefers men.
Fun Home evokes the 1970s, with its characters’ bell-bottomed costumes (perfectly designed by Zinn), the set’s bulky television cabinets playing blurry shows to which Alison and her brothers sit glued, and with its references to all the sexual intrigue of lives played out in the shadows of a culture in which LGBT people were still utterly invisible. That the musical makes that historical moment so detailed and palpable is part of its huge allure.
I was also surprised by the show’s humor, delighted to find its creators so willing to poke gentle, even loving fun at the foibles of this particular generation. To bring a comic touch to a personal story about a devastating life at a painful historical moment requires a real gift, which, happily, is everywhere evident here.
The terrific actors carry the warm, wry book. Alison (Malone) is constrained and regretful as she watches her father’s secrets play out, but affectionate and generous with her younger selves. Lucas, as Small Alison, is feisty and insistent, so willfully determined to be the something else she senses she is. (A friend who saw the show wondered how someone as young as Lucas could portray the emotions of an eight-year-old lesbian so well. And isn’t it something that such a character can be played on stage now? So many of us have truly never seen anything like our lives being embodied on stage in front of our eyes.)
Socha, as Medium Alison, nails what it feels like to be barely able to live in your skin until suddenly, you understand there’s a name for what you are and that there are others like you. She shrugs on her new identity like the army jacket Joan wears. It’s easy to see how this diffident young artist grew into the mature cartoonist who created Dykes to Watch Out For, the graphic serial that captured the mores of lesbian communities around the country.
In one of Fun Home’s most wrenching scenes, Bruce instructs Small Alison about her drawing. She wants to draw cartoons, and he wants her to draw high art, his elitism seeping into the imperious tone of his voice and the way he handles her work. As she resists his lesson about shading and tone, Bruce gets annoyed, returning her pencil with irritation and announcing that he doesn’t care if her work is crap or that she’ll embarrass herself in front of everyone.
The scene perfectly illustrates the father and daughter’s tragic relationship. He wanted, on some level, to live through her in the way he couldn’t live himself. Bruce wanted to be proud of Alison because he was ashamed of himself. But he didn’t reckon on a daughter who—even though that moment with Bruce hurts and scares her—knows that she’s right about her art and her sexuality. She knows that she’s a cartoonist and a lesbian; as Alison moves into self-possession and visibility, she realizes that Bruce will never be able to experience either one.
Fun Home charts a key turning point in a family and in a movement. And it does so largely with music (though the show is not quite sung through), always with humor, and consistently with a gentle, intelligent, compassionate tone that honors and ennobles its story.
What a miracle to see this show performed last week. What a miracle to have same-sex marriage legalized in New Jersey this week, so LGBT people can marry if they wish. I left the theatre a week ago feeling strangely seen and not quite sure how to think about that; I’ve spent so many years watching for lesbian subtext and trying to read queerness underneath protestations of heterosexuality. To see lesbian desire as the text felt almost startling—and more wonderful than I can even begin to describe.
Go see Fun Home.
The Feminist Spectator
Fun Home, The Public Theatre, opens October 22, through November 17.